Humanitarian to the Regency

Urbanity toward women; benevolence toward men; and humanity toward the brute creation.’ — Jonah Barrington

Richard Martin, (1754? – 1834) was an Irish MP, lawyer and a tireless advocate for the defenseless and mistreated. His efforts in Parliament created a body of law protecting animal rights. He inspired others to create the RSPCA. He searched out any who needed help–animals and humans, Irish rebels and ton debutantes. He expanded the meaning of being humane to encompass kind treatment toward all living things.

He was the Humanitarian to the Regency.

‘In life he never was equalled, and when he dies by whom shall he be replaced?’

It was the Prince Regent who first christened him ‘Humanity.’ Dick Martin did not always see eye-to-eye with his sovereign, notably in his defense of the estranged Princess of Wales. But when news arrived that Humanity survived a shipwreck, His Highness was overjoyed. Back in Connemara, where Martin had given shelter and legal assistance to many a countryman during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, his preservation was treated as a matter of course:

“.. ‘No one need be afeared for the master; for if he was in the midst of a raging sea the prayers of widows and orphans would keep his head above water.’ “

Before he came to London and Royal notice, Richard Martin was known in Ireland as ‘Hair-trigger Dick,’ for the many duels he fought. His most famous conflict was waged over a dog that belonged to a family close to the Martins. The notorious Fighting Fitzgerald, whose violence was attributed to a botched trepanning, induced that family to produce their famous wolfhound Prime Sargeant for his admiring inspection.

The madman shot the dog at point-blank range.

The DNA of the Regency-era Irish wolfhound is believed to closely resemble that of a Great Dane. Highly prized by royal and aristocratic circles, large numbers of them were exported abroad. (Photo via Pixabay)

Everyone agreed it was murder, but it was Martin who called Fitzgerald to account. He pursued the murderer for years. Fitzgerald evaded him time and again by seeking refuge in jail and even breaking his second’s finger at one point. Martin’s own man forgot to show up with his pistols. A theater curtain contrived to trip and injure him as he ran after his quarry.

When the day of reckoning finally came, Fitzgerald, as most bullies are apt to do, succumbed to cowardice. He complained the ground was uneven. Then he took up an opposing position beyond the range of Hair-trigger Dick’s pistol.

“I will soon cure that,’ Martin retorted. ‘I will now march up until I lay my pistol on your face.’

The first Mrs. Martin cuckolded him. But the budding Humanity did not shoot his wife’s lover, as one might expect a hair-trigger duelist to do. He sued the man instead and won £10,000 in damages (a goodly sum of money in those days). Still, the compensation that really wasn’t began ‘to weigh heavily on him.’ He threw the award out of his carriage window, a few coins at a time, from the London courtroom all the way back home to Ireland.

He refused to file for divorce.

‘My distress in this unhappy business arose if possible more from the situation of the unhappy person (Mrs. Martin) in question than from what I in my person suffered.’

His efforts in London as an advocate for animal rights, both in Parliament and as a lawyer, are well-documented. In the courtroom he brought cases against drovers, slaughterhouses and ordinary citizens he spied abusing animals in the London streets. He was the Irish scourge of hackney and coach drivers.

When the law failed him in the courts, he brought bills to the floor of the Commons with the intention of rectifying it. His humor was legendary. It had to power to break down the opposition and draw support to his causes. The House cheered when Castlereagh, with whom Martin often clashed on the Catholic Question, welcomed him back after a period of several years’ absence.

“It was so usual for him to be entertaining that they sometimes misunderstood him and laughed when he was not even joking.”

Even members of the Beau Monde benefited from his assistance. A wallflower left without a partner could always count on Humanity to lead her in a set of country dances. He would offer his arm to the governess who’d just entertained the company on a pianoforte, accompanying her to supper before his hostess could banish her employee to the nursery.

“Erring sons and daughters who had incurred the wrath of their parents found in him a protector and a counsellor who restored them to the bosom of their families. He was notorious at interceding for young men who had fallen out of favour with their superiors, and his house was a refuge to the struggling while they tried to set themselves up in life.”

Pan edition of Georgette Heyer's The Nonesuch
‘Sir Waldo, you are labouring under a misapprehension! It would be most improper in me to stand up with you, or with anyone! I’m not a guest here: I am the governess! said Miss Ancilla Trent.
‘Yes, but a most superior female!’ Sir Waldo murmured.

Sometimes it was hard to take him seriously. His eccentricity puzzled many:

‘His sterling qualities were so embossed with wild humour and fun, that it was no easy matter to form a correct judgement upon his real character.’ — journalist William Jerdan

Unfortunately, Martin was many times his own saboteur, for his tender-hearted sensitivity took precedence over his dogged prosecution of cruelty. He took a man to court for beating his donkey with the iron buckle end of a leather strap. The man’s wife protested they could not pay the fine imposed–they were already poor and it would ruin them. Martin made the offender promise to never abuse his animal again. He paid the wife a half-sovereign.

He once withdrew a case he’d brought against a solicitor who had cheated him. Against his own interest, he declined the chance to get his money back, agonizing over the possibility the court might impose the death penalty as punishment.

Being a humanitarian came at a cost to Martin’s family. Throughout his career, he neglected his wife and children, as well as his finances. He had gone from being the rich King of Connemara to a bankrupt whose tenantry was to succumb to famine. Fleeing to the Continent to escape his creditors, Martin never returned. His son’s attempt to pay the debts by breaking the entail on the family’s estates left no inheritance and no Martin of any note in Connemara.

He might have been the prototypical Dickensian character, but even that author found Humanity Dick’s benevolence too much to take.

“It is a pity that he could not exchange a little of his excessive tenderness for animals for some common sense and consideration for human beings.” — Charles Dickens

quotes are from ‘Humanity Dick Martin ‘King of Connemara 1754-1834’ by Shevauwn Lynam 1975 unless otherwise noted.

2 thoughts on “Humanitarian to the Regency

  1. Fascinating biography. It does make me think of the Johnny Cash lyrics (from the song ‘No Earthly Good,’ “you’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good” when it comes to neglecting his family, finances, and future for animals/humanitarianism, even to the point of famine!

    Like

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