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.

Next Post:  Sir Fowell Buxton, The Chairman


The Vicar Who Went to Prison

Animal Rights

We have all felt that initial exuberance of being a part of something new, something important.  When we are in a meeting of like-minded individuals, it is easy to embrace a call to action, kindled by the warmth of friendship and the desire to do great things, to make a difference.  Beginnings bestow the quality of possibilities.

Then, the next day comes.  And with it comes clarity and a swift knowledge that a call to action is only as good as the deeds that follow.  Whatever pledge is taken, must convert into a reality if anything good is to come from the initial objective.

This is where commitment is tested.

The Group of Twenty-Two left the meeting of June 16, 1824, determined to eliminate senseless cruelty to animals.  No one was more resolute than the vicar, Mr. Arthur Broome, who had been fighting for animal rights long before this historic meeting.  In fact, this was his second attempt to form a society, the first having met with failure two years before.

Arthur Broome received a MA at the prestigious Balliol College, University of Oxford (Adam Smith, three former prime ministers, and five Nobel laureates are noted graduates of this institution).  His future was secure.  At 42, he was the Vicar of the parish of Bromley-by-Bow, which is now called Bromley, situated 4.8 miles east north-east of Charing Cross.   The position offered a comfortable, respected vocation, without the need for extra-curricular activities that involved what many perceived as eccentric.  One can only imagine the talk amongst the parishioners.

Animal Rights

Nothing could dissuade Arthur Broome in his mission. Perhaps he anticipated a change in societal behaviour, a foreshadowing of what we call in our modern-day, a “tipping point.” Within four days of the June 16th meeting, he had engaged the Rector of Marylebone to preach a sermon in support of their efforts and was the happy recipient of a £50 anonymous donation.  His next step was to give up his post and salary to focus exclusively on the fledgling society.

Arthur Broome gave his all: his time, his wealth, his freedom.  He was held responsible for the Society’s debts, which by 1826 was approaching a sizable £300.  A prison cell was his home until a few friends raised the funds for his release.

Arthur Broome’s convictions never wavered through the years.  Very little is known about his life; no one knows his resting place.   I would argue, however, that the world is a better place because he lived.  Perhaps he was the tipping point that changed society’s attitude to animal welfare.

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Humanity Dick and the Donkey