A painting of the trial of Bill Burns, showing Richard Martin
with the donkey in an astonished courtroom, leading to the world's first known conviction for animal cruelty, after Burns was found beating his donkey. It was a story that delighted London's newspapers
and music halls
The emergence of the RSPCA has its roots in the intellectual climate of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Britain where opposing views were exchanged in print concerning the use of animals. The harsh use and maltreatment of animals in hauling carriages, scientific experiments (including vivisection), and cultural amusements of fox-hunting, bull-baiting and cock fighting were among some of the matters that were debated by social reformers, clergy, and parliamentarians. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was an unsuccessful attempt by William Johnstone Pulteney on 18 April 1800 to pass legislation through England's Parliament to ban the practice of bull-baiting. In 1809 Lord Erskine (1750–1823) introduced an anti-cruelty bill which was passed in the House of Lords but was defeated in a vote in the House of Commons. Erskine in his parliamentary speech combined the vocabulary of animal rights and trusteeship with a theological appeal to biblical passages opposing cruelty. A later attempt to pass anti-cruelty legislation was spearheaded by the Irish-born parliamentarian Richard Martin and in 1822 an anti-cruelty to cattle bill (sometimes called Martin's Act) became law.
Martin's Act was supported by various social reformers who were not parliamentarians and an informal network had gathered around the efforts of Reverend Arthur Broome (1779–1837) to create a voluntary organisation that would promote kindness toward animals. Broome canvassed opinions in letters that were published or summarised in various periodicals in 1821. Broome organised a meeting and extended invitations to various reformers that included parliamentarians, clergy and lawyers. The meeting was held on Wednesday 16 June 1824 in Old Slaughter's Coffee House, London. The meeting was chaired by Thomas Fowell Buxton MP (1786–1845) and the resolution to establish the society was voted on. Among the others who were present as founding members were Sir James Mackintosh MP, Richard Martin, William Wilberforce, Basil Montagu, John Ashley Warre, Rev. George Bonner, Rev. George Avery Hatch, Sir James Graham, John Gilbert Meymott, William Mudford, and Lewis Gompertz. The organisation was founded as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Broome was appointed as the society's first honorary secretary. The foundation is marked by a plaque on the modern day building at 77–78 St Martin's Lane.
The society was the first animal welfare charity to be founded in the world. In 1824 it brought sixty three offenders before the courts. It was granted its royal status by Queen Victoria in 1840 to become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as it is today. The origins of the role of the RSPCA inspector stem from Broome's efforts in 1822 to personally bring to court some individuals against whom charges of cruelty were heard. Broome employed and personally paid the salary for an inspector to monitor the abuse of animals at the Smithfield Market. The inspector hired by Broome, Charles Wheeler, served in the capacity of an inspector from 1824–1826 but his services were terminated when the society's revenue was exceeded by its debts. The accrued debts led to a suspension of operations when Broome as the society's guarantor for debts was imprisoned. When operations resumed there was some divided opinions in the Committees that steered the society about employing inspectors, which resulted in a resolution in 1832 to discontinue employing an inspector. The permanent appointment of a salaried inspector was settled in 1838, and the inspector is the image best known of the organisation today.
Broome's experience of bankruptcy and prison created difficulties for him afterwards and he stood aside as the society's first secretary in 1828 and was succeeded by the co-founding member Lewis Gompertz. Unlike the other founder members who were Christians, Gompertz was a Jew and despite his abilities in campaigning against cruelty, fund-raising and administrative skills, tensions emerged between him and another committee member. The tensions led to the convening of a meeting in early 1832 which led to Gompertz resigning. His resignation coincided with a resolution adopted in 1832 that "the proceedings of the Society were entirely based on the Christian faith and Christian principles."
Alongside the society's early efforts to prosecute offenders who maltreated animals, there were efforts made to promote kindly attitudes toward animals through the publication of books and tracts as well as the fostering of annual sermons preached against cruelty on behalf of the society. The first annual anti-cruelty sermon that was preached on behalf of the society was delivered by Rev Dr Rudge in March 1827 at the Whitechapel Church. In 1865 the RSPCA looked for a way to consolidate and further influence public opinion on animal welfare by encouraging an annual "Animal Sunday" church service where clergy would preach sermons on anti-cruelty themes and the very first sermon was delivered in London on 9 July 1865 by Rev. Arthur Penryhn Stanley (1815–1881), the Dean of Westminster. The "Animal Sunday" service became an annual event in different church gatherings in England, which was later adopted by churches in Australia and New Zealand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and it was the forerunner of the "pet blessing" services that emerged in the 1970s. In the twentieth century the RSPCA widened the horizons in the public domain by promoting an annual "animal welfare week."
The RSPCA also had annual accounts published in newspapers, like The Londoner, where the secretary would discuss improvements, report cases, and remind the public to watch over their animals' health.
During the second half of 1837 the society sponsored an essay-writing competition with a benefactor offering a prize of one hundred pounds for the winning entry. The terms of the competition stipulated:
"The Essay required is one which shall morally illustrate, and religiously enforce, the obligation of man towards the inferior and dependent creatures--their protection and security from abuse, more especially as regards those engaged in service, and for the use and benefit of mankind-on the sin of cruelty--the infliction of wanton or unnecessary pain, taking the subject under its various denominations-exposing the specious defence of vivisection on the ground of its being for the interests of science--the supplying the infinite demands on the poor animal in aid of human speculations by exacting extreme labour, and thereby causing excessive suffering--humanity to the brute as harmonious with the spirit and doctrines of Christianity, and the duty of man as a rational and accountable creature."
There were thirty-four essays submitted and in December 1838 the prize was awarded to the Congregational minister Rev John Styles. Styles published his book-length work, The Animal Creation; its claims on our humanity stated and enforced, and all proceeds of sale were donated to the society. Other contestants, such as David Mushet and William Youatt, the society's veterinarian, also published their essays. One entrant whose work was submitted a few days after the competition deadline, and which was excluded from the competition was written by the Unitarian minister William Hamilton Drummond and he published his text in 1838, The Rights of Animals: and Man's Obligation to Treat Them with Humanity. This competition set a precedent for subsequent RSPCA prize-winning competitions.
The role of women in the society began shortly after the organisation was founded. At the society's first annual meeting in 1825, which was held at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on 29 June 1825, the public notice that announced the gathering specifically included appropriate accommodation for the presence of women members. Several women of social standing were listed as patronesses of the society, such as the Duchess of Buccleuch, Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury, Dowager Countess Harcourt, Lady Emily Pusey, Lady Eyre and Lady Mackintosh. In 1837 the novelist Catherine Grace Godwin (1798–1845) described in her novel Louisa Seymour an incident where two leading female characters were aghast at the behaviour of a driver abusing a horse pulling a carriage that they subsequently discussed the problem of cruelty with other characters one of whom, called Sir Arthur Beauchamp, disclosed that he was a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In 1839 another female supporter of the society, Sarah Burdett, a relative of the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts and a poet, published her theological understanding of the rights of animals. However it was not until 12 July 1870 that the RSPCA Ladies' Committee was established. Through the Ladies Committee various activities were sponsored including essay-prize competitions among children, and the formation of the Band of Mercy as a movement to encourage children to act kindly toward animals.
In the nineteenth century the RSPCA fostered international relations on the problem of cruelty through the sponsoring of conferences and in providing basic advice on the establishment of similar welfare bodies in North America and in the colonies of the British Empire. The RSPCA celebrated its jubilee in June 1874 by holding an International Congress on Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Queen Victoria delivered a letter of congratulations to the RSPCA on its anniversary. Although the society was founded by people who were mostly Christian social reformers, and in 1832 presented itself as a Christian charity concerned with welfare as well as moral reform, the RSPCA gradually developed into a non-religious, non-sectarian animal welfare charity.
The RSPCA lobbied Parliament throughout the nineteenth century, resulting in a number of new laws. The Cruelty to Animals Act 1835 amended Martin's Act and outlawed baiting. There was a public groundswell of opinions that were divided into opposing factions concerning vivisection, where Charles Darwin (1809–1882) campaigned on behalf of scientists to conduct experiments on animals while others, such as Frances Power Cobbe (1822–1904) formed an anti-vivisection lobby. The stance adopted by the RSPCA was one of qualified support for legislation. This qualified support for experiments on animals was at odds with the stance taken by Society's founder Broome who had in 1825 sought medical opinions about vivisection and he published their anti-vivisection sentiments. It was also a departure from the 1837 essay-competition (discussed above) where the essayists were obliged to expose "the specious defence of vivisection on the ground of its being for the interests of science." In 1876 the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed to control animal experimentation. In 1911 Parliament passed Sir George Greenwood's Animal Protection Act. Since that time the RSPCA has continued to play an active role, both in the creation of animal welfare legislation and in its enforcement. An important recent new law has been the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
During the First World War the RSPCA provided support for the Army Veterinary Corps in treating animals such as donkeys, horses, dogs and birds that were co-opted into military service as beasts of burden, messengers and so forth. The RSPCA's centenary in 1924 and its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 1974 were accompanied by books telling the society's story. Since the end of the Second World War the development of intense agricultural farming practices has raised many questions for public debate concerning animal welfare legislation and the role of the RSPCA. This development has included debates both inside the RSPCA (e.g. the RSPCA Reform Group) as well as among ethicists, social activists and supporters of claims for animal rights outside of it concerning the society's role in ethical and legal issues involving the use of animals.