Richard Martin - First Parliamentary Law for Animals
Richard Martin (1754 - 1834) was an Irish politician and an animal and human rights activist. Animal welfarists remember him especially for pioneering legislation through the United Kingdom parliament to outlaw cruelty to animals. They also honour him as a leading founder of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Founded in 1824 the RSPCA was the modern world’s first animal welfare organisation. The RSPCA inspired other countries to establish similar societies, such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, set up in 1866.
Martin had a reputation for being extraordinarily kind hearted to people and animals, earning the nickname Humanity Dick. He was a keen duellist and considered as one of the best exponents of duelling in Ireland. When an unbalanced bully, George Robert FitzGerald, killed a dog, Martin challenged him to a shoot-out and they wounded each other. When asked why he defended animals so utterly, Martin is said to have encapsulated his passion for duelling and his concern for animals with the explanation: “Sir, an ox cannot hold a pistol!” The law later hanged FitzGerald for another offence.
When age 22 Martin became a member of the Irish Parliament. But when the Act of Union dissolved the Irish Parliament about 1800, he took a seat as a member in the United Kingdom parliament, representing County Galway, where he was born.
Martin fought politically for social reform on many fronts, including emancipation for Catholics, abolition of the death penalty for convicted forgers, and freedom for slaves. But he is remembered in particular for the legislation, popularly called Martin's Act, or the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act, that, with the help of others, he drove through Parliament. Martin's Act banned the ill treatment of equines, cattle and sheep. Martin's Act was the first parliamentary law by any country to proscribe cruelty to animals.
Extract from the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822
, also known as Martin's Act:
"...if any person or persons shall wantonly and cruelly beat, abuse, or ill-treat any Horse, Mare, Gelding, Mule, Ass, Ox, Cow, Heifer, Steer, Sheep, or other Cattle...and if the party or parties accused shall be convicted of any such Offence...he, she, or they so convicted shall forfeit and pay any Sum not exceeding Five Pounds, not less than Ten Shillings, to His Majesty...and if the person or persons so convicted shall refuse or not be able forthwith to pay the Sum forfeited, every such Offender shall...be committed to the House of Correction or some other Prison...for any Time not exceeding Three Months."
None of Martin’s further attempts to introduce laws to protect animals succeeded, including bans on dog-fighting, cock-fighting and bull-baiting. Instead, people took to mocking his energetic prosecution of anyone ill-treating an animal. Alongside this, Martin was a sport hunter, hunting his estate of 9,000 ha (22,000 acres), a third of County Galway, that he inherited from his father. Many influential people who supported the RSPCA were also sport hunters or farmers, which is why the organisation floundered for its first 170 years by largely excluding wild animals and farmed animals from its remit. For most of its history the RSPCA has been a ‘cat, dog and horse society’. The RSPCA did not begin to be a less ineffectual humane society until the 1990’s.
When Martin was 72 he fled Britain to Boulogne because of political intrigue and inheritance debts on his estate. The town was a busy French port and a popular resort for British expatriates and he died there a few years later. However, a year after his death, Martin’s Act was finally enlarged to ban the fighting and baiting of animals. Martin’s graveyard in Boulogne was bombed during the Second World War and his bones were re-interred in the cemetery’s ossuary. A marble plaque was erected there from RSPCA funds with the inscription “...he piloted...the first act to protect animals.”
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