Humanity Dick & The Donkey

If I had a donkey wot wouldn’t go,
D’ ye think I’d wollop 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 ha’ been no occasion for Martin’s Act.

Music hall song inspired by the prosecution of Bill Burns for cruelty to a donkey.


Painting by P. Mathews in or just after August 1838 of the Trial of Bill Burns

In today’s world, Richard Martin would be the ideal candidate for a reality show.

Born on January 15, 1754, at Ballynahinch Castle, County Galway, Richard Martin was destined to become the friend of animals, advocates and royalty.  His bold and eventful life should not have come as a surprise considering that he was the great-grandson of “Nimble Dick” who managed to raise the Martin family name and fortune, by taking ownership of the ancient Clan O’Flaherty territory of Connemara, which is located in the north-west corner of County Galway.  But that is another story…

Richard lived big.  Charismatic, unconventional, with a brilliant sense of humour, drama and controversy followed his every step.  An insatiable traveller during his youth, Richard survived not one, but two shipwrecks and was in New England at the start of the American Revolutionary War. In 1776, at the age of 22, he entered the Irish House of Commons, where his entertaining speeches and numerous disruptions became legendary.  A spirited thespian, he established theatres in Dublin and Galway.  A crack shot and  involved in 20 serious duels, he gained the title of “Hair-trigger Dick.”   He was the friend of William Pitt, Queen Caroline, and King George IV, who famously named him “Humanity Dick.”

Many would consider Richard Martin arrogant, opinionated, even eccentric.  But no one can dispute his love and sympathy for animals, values that were instilled by his mother in his early childhood.  He despised the popular blood sports of bear-baiting and dog-fighting, voicing his strident opposition to all who walked the streets of London.

Ideas do not die.  They may wither for a time, but then they come back with renewed vigour.

In 1822, Richard Martin introduced the Martin’s Act which was given the lengthy title of “An Act to prevent the cruel and improper Treatment of Cattle.”   This was an extraordinary event that has been regarded as one of the first Acts of the UK Parliament to focus on animal welfare. A fine of up to five pounds or two months in prison was given out to anyone who dared to beat, abuse or ill-treat a horse, mare, gelding, mule, ass, ox, cow, heifer, steer, sheep or other cattle.

The problem of course, was enforcement.  The magistrates did not take this law seriously, but Richard Martin would not be thwarted. He was the first to bring charges against Bill Burns, a street seller of fruit, for beating his donkey.  Humanity Dick marched the donkey into the courtroom and, before a dumbfounded audience, pointed out the donkey’s injuries suffered at the hands of Bill Burns.

Mocked for relying on the “testimony of a donkey,” Richard Martin was the brunt of political cartoons that featured him with donkey’s ears.   Amidst all the laughter and taunts, the idea that animals had rights took hold and was soon embraced beyond the borders of the UK.

Two years later, on June 16, 1824, Richard Martin joined the Group of 22 at the Old Slaughter’s Coffee House.   While many think Richard Martin was the architect of the SPCA, he denied the honour, preferring to channel his energies into prowling the streets of London to ensure the safety of animals.  Richard Martin brought a new awareness of how to treat animals.  For those offenders who sincerely regretted their actions, he was known to pay their fines.

Richard Martin believed in the possibilities of lost causes. Perhaps we should, too.

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