Conservation: December 2013 Archives

Richard Martin, "Humanity Dick"

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Renowned in his day as a daring duelist and an outspoken advocate of Irish tenant farmers' rights, Richard Martin is now remembered for his tireless efforts to end animal cruelty. One of the SPCA's charter members, Martin pushed the first successful bill forbidding cruelty to animals through the House of Commons. Although he was an Independent MP, his diverse group of friends included the royal family, Prime Minister William Pitt and many other prominent figures. His tireless efforts to abolish poverty and suffering caused George IV to nickname him "Humanity Dick."

In 1822, Martin brought forth his "Ill Treatment of Cattle Bill." While other figures, such as Lord Erskine and William Johnstone Pulteney, had previously introduced similar bills, their attempts had been unsuccessful. The new law, quickly dubbed "Martin's Act," subjected those who abused livestock -- especially horses -- to two months' imprisonment or fines of up to ₤5. To attract attention to the law, Martin delivered speeches in crowded London streets. The comedians and political cartoonists had a field day, making up ditties and depicting Martin with a pair of donkey's ears.

Soon after the act's passage, Martin gave the comedians even more material. The MP spotted Bill Burns, a man who sold fruits and vegetables in the streets, beating his donkey. When Martin brought charges against Burns, however, the magistrate was bored by the testimony and tried to look the other way. The prosecution came up with a new tactic: why not let the donkey's injuries speak for themselves? When the donkey was led into the courtroom, everyone, including the magistrate, noticed its obvious wounds. Burns was immediately found guilty.

Many people thought Martin's Act and its enforcers targeted only working class violators, while the wealthy were permitted to abuse animals scot-free. Eager to counteract this image, Martin credited Burns' apology. He asked the judge to fine Burns the minimum of ten shillings -- and ended up paying half. This trial gave Martin all the publicity he wanted. Not only was he in the news, but an artist named Matthews painted a picture of the trial and the comedians made up a new song:

Richard Martin.jpgIf I had a donkey wot wouldn't go,
D'ye think I'd wallop him? no, no, no!
But gentle means I'd try, d'ye see,
Because I hate all cruelty;
If all had been like me, in fact,
There'd have been no occasion for Martin's Act
Dumb animals to prevent being crack'd,
On the head.

He attained fame as an orator due to his storehouse of anecdotes and his habit of switching arbitrarily between an elite English accent and his Irish burr. Nettled by a Morning Post article poking fun at his brogue, Martin waited outside the newspaper offices until the editor came out. Gesturing to the objectionable passage, Martin cried, "Sir! Did I ever spake in italics?" Actually, he took a lot of raillery from the press. The Dublin Star dubbed him "Brahmin," The Chronicle called him "Don Quixote," and Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine referred to him as "that blustering and blundering blockhead."

His flaring temper prompted his political opponents -- who burst out laughing whenever Martin stood up to deliver an oration -- to dub him "Hair-trigger Martin." Flaunting this reputation, Martin engaged in over 100 duels. George IV visited Ireland during one of Martin's parliamentary campaigns. When the king wondered who would win the election, Martin bowed and replied, "The survivor, sire!"

Martin encouraged animal rights supporters to resort to unconventional (to say the least) means of enforcing their statutes. He personally fought a duel to avenge the shooting death of a friend's wolfhound. Unbeknownst to Martin, the dog's killer was wearing bulletproof clothes. Consequently, he went unscathed although Martin hit him twice before receiving an injury in the chest -- after his recovery, Martin enjoyed showing off the scars. Years later, sixty-seven year old Martin noticed a London man whipping his horse in Ludlow Hill. A few minutes later, two men showed up, jerked the man away from the horse and showered blows on him. They had been paid five shillings each -- compliments of Richard Martin, who proudly told the story in Parliament.

Richard Martin house.jpgRichard Martin remained in Parliament for twenty-five years. Always vociferous, Martin brought forth hundreds of bills. He continually sought to add amendments to the Ill Treatment of Cattle Bill requiring regulations on slaughterhouses and banning dogfights, bull- and bear-baiting. Although animal rights were his primary focus, he was also dedicated to representing his constituents' best interests. For instance, he was a chief proponent of Catholic Emancipation. (At that time, only Church of England members were granted basic civil rights.) Born into an ancient Irish family, Martin inherited a beautiful seaside estate that encompassed over a hundred miles. Known as the "King of Connemara" for his seemingly limitless fortune, Martin was a benevolent landowner who supplied his tenants with adequate food and shelter. The only rule he adamantly enforced decreed that farmers could not hitch plows to horses' tails.

Eighty years old and deeply in debt, Martin lost his estate in the Irish Potato Famine and his seat in 1826, due to charges of voter intimidation. Previously, his creditors had been powerless to act because MPs couldn't be prosecuted. Denied this protection, Martin fled to France to avoid going to debtor's prison. In 1829 -- three years after Martin had escaped to Boulogne -- Parliament finally passed the Catholic Emancipation bill. Soon afterwards, they also approved Martin's amendments to the Ill Treatment of Cattle Bill. Even though his career was over, the Irish statesman's influence lived on.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Conservation category from December 2013.

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