Protecting animals - the unstoppable Richard Martin
In 1822 the House of Commons passed the first national parliamentary legislation in the world to penalize cruelty to animals. Richard Martin, the person who drove the act through the House, was a boisterous Anglo-Irishman who had retained his boyish love and respect for other creatures. His actions would transform the way society thought about and treated animals.
Born in Ireland in 1754 to an 'Old English' family, Richard Martin went to Harrow School where he took away one great lesson from his master, Samuel Parr. This was that cruelty to animals was “wanton barbarity”, a belief Martin’s mother shared.
After a stint at Cambridge, Richard entered the Irish House of Commons. By now he was a stocky, energetic man with an uproarious sense of humour who could reduce his political opponents to tears of laughter.
He was also a good shot. When ‘Fighting Fitzgerald’ deliberately killed a wolfhound, Martin, who was a friend of both dog and owner, delivered a memorable lesson. He challenged FitzGerald to a duel with pistols. Both participants were slightly wounded.
Martin’s Catholic father had raised him as a Protestant so he could fight for Catholic emancipation in the Irish Parliament. The first reforms were passed by the House of Commons and the Irish Parliament in 1778, and allowed Catholics to own and inherit property, join the army and other professions, and vote.
Meanwhile Martin had married and was raising a family. Curiously, this ebullient, kind, and passionate man, who comforted a shy girl at a grand function, stopped his carriage to learn why a child was crying, and protected animals from abuse, was deserted in 1791 by his wife. In 1794 his father died, and Martin inherited all his debts and 200,000 acres of bog, moorland and mountain in County Galway. He moved to Ballynahinch Castle, Connemara, where he fed the poor, married an author after his first wife died, and continued to push for political reforms with his customary wit and warmth.
In 1798 the Irish rebellion for independence was overthrown. Ireland became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Martin and a hundred Irish entered the House of Commons as MPs in 1801. An observer wrote, Martin “lets drive at the House like a bullet”. His arrival made a real difference to William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery.
Martin held fast to his boyhood dream of protecting animals, and achieved it when he was 68. (Never, never give up.) On 18 May 1821 he published a bill in Parliament that would make it an offence to ‘wantonly beat, abuse or ill-treat’ any ‘horse, cow, ox, heifer, steer, sheep or other cattle’.
The bill was defeated in the Lords, but Martin was “undismayed” (DNB). He reintroduced his bill, pushed it through with the help of Lord Erskine, and saw it receive Royal Assent on 22 July 1822.
Always practical, Martin set about enforcing the act by bringing horse dealers, drovers, and carters who had abused animals before the magistrates. Quixotically he often paid their fines “out of his own pocket” (DNB).
On 16 June 1824 Martin, Wilberforce, Thomas Fowell Buxton, and 19 other reformers met in a London coffee house to establish the organization that would become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). They envisioned a committee that would bring those accused of hurting an animal before the bar of justice. Eventually they hired inspectors.
As Martin had hoped, the law against cruelty to animals eventually included cats and dogs. Over the years, "Martin’s Act" and the RSPCA he helped to found transformed attitudes in Britain, America and Europe.
Somehow, we are not suprised that Martin did not enjoy a serene old age. Unwilling to raise rents on his Irish tenants, and unable to pay his inherited debts, he fled to France ahead of his creditors when he was almost 80 years old. He died in 1834 in Boulogne. It’s said that the last thing he did was to comfort his family and his dog.
This is the first in a series on Brits protecting animals.