‘Humanity Dick’ and the founding of the RSPCA

On 16 June 1824 a small group of men met in Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in St Martin’s Lane, London. They had been brought together by Arthur Broome, animal-welfare campaigner and vicar of St Mary’s in Bow, but the leading light was Irish MP Richard Martin, widely known as ‘Humanity Dick’.

Thanks to Martin, Parliament had recently passed the first legislation of its kind against the mistreatment of horses and cattle. Asked why he defended animals, Martin once replied, “Sir, an ox cannot hold a pistol!” This was more than mere rhetoric; Martin fought at least one duel over cruelty to a dog.

The meeting ended in the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (Royal patronage didn’t come until 1840.) The aim, in Martin’s words, was to “alter the moral feeling of the community”. But how? Some argued for it to be a ‘prosecuting society’: some 63 Smithfield drovers had been convicted of cruelty in the previous six months alone thanks to a Mr Wheeler, employed by Broome for just that purpose. Others thought sermons a better way to compel “the lower orders of the people… to think and act like those of a superior class”.

The society compromised. It set up committees to explore both. The RSPCA was born.

This piece first appeared in the June 2022 issue of History Today. The illustration is a painting of the trial of Bill Burns, prosecuted under Martin’s Act of 1822 against cruelty to animals. Richard Martin is with the donkey. (Source: Wikimedia.)

Like this? You can read more of Mathew’s History Today Months Past pieces here.

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