Biographies of James and Harriet


1. James Martineau (1805-1900)  - short version


James Martineau (1805 - 1900), philosopher and theologian, is best remembered for his views on religion based on reason and conscience. He wrote many books, perhaps the best well known is 'The Seat of Authority in Religion'. He was first apprenticed as an engineer but very soon decided to train for the Unitarian ministry and entered Manchester College which was then at York.


As a qualified Unitarian minister he started his ministry in Dublin, 1828, and married Helen Higginson in December, 1828. In the summer of 1832 he moved from Dublin to Liverpool where he was a great success. He was one time President of the Philosophical Society and took a full part in Liverpool's social life.


He joined the staff of ManchesterCollege in 1840, at the time of its return to Manchester. James was involved with Unitarian affairs nationally
- the Dissenters' Chapels Act, the opening of the universities to dissenters without doctrinal tests, and the decision to remove Manchester College to London (associated with UCL) where in due course he became principal, 1869-85, and president in 1887.


James Martineau was always a devoted family man, but no grandchildren were born. He died at the age of 95 in January 1900.


More in information on James



James Martineau was the seventh child and youngest son of Thomas, a textile merchant of Norwich Huguenot descent, and his wife Elizabeth Rankin, who came from Newcastle. He was thus kin of the Taylors, and through his mother to the Turners and Gaskells and other northern Unitarian families.


Harriet, 3 years older than James, made him her special care and together they read the classics and anything else they could lay hands on, and sang a lot (mainly hymns). By the time James was 7, Rev Thomas Madge was minister at the Norwich Octagon; he 'had been brought up C of E, but having become convinced of the truth of Unitarianism, and believing this alone to be the genuine gospel of Christ, he thought it his duty to proclaim it with greater distinctness than had hitherto been the practice at Norwich, thereby causing some secessions, and imparting to the congregation greater uniformity of theological colour'.


James himself recollected 'some of my first awakenings of conscience and of spiritual faith came to me in the tones of that sweet voice' - an influence which was confirmed when Mr Madge came to supper at the Martineaus every Sunday after evening service.


Young James was therefore in at the beginning of Norwich Unitarianism. At Harriet's suggestion he was sent to Dr Carpenter's famous school in Bristol and like her was very happy there. Both became lifelong friends of the Carpenters. James, already well grounded in the classics, showed aptitude also for mathematics and physics as well as languages, and decided to become an engineer.


He went to Derby as an apprentice and naturally lodged with the Unitarian minister, Rev E Higginson. But the engineering was limited and instruction poor; James did not like the Higginsons but soon fell in love with the eldest daughter; and to get away from this difficult environment he spent as much time as possible with his Newcastle cousin Catherine Rankin and her husband, Henry Turner, now the young minister at Nottingham, who became his hero. Henry soon became ill and died, and it was during his funeral sermon, by Rev Charles Wellbeloved, that 'the scales fell from [James's] eyes...the religious part of his life first commenced' and he decided to train for the Unitarian ministry. His father agreed to forfeit the premium paid for his apprenticeship, and supply limited funds for his theological training.


Though unofficiallly engaged to Helen Higginson, there could be no question of marriage and her father forbad any contact between James and his beloved. ManchesterCollege was then at York, and there James threw himself into his training and all the other student activities (including athletics). His tutors included Wellbeloved, Turner and Kenrick; his fellow-students Tagart, Higginson, Gaskell, Bache (to all of whom James was then or later connected by marriage) and Harriet's fiance, and many other congenial spirits.


During vacations at home he was Harriet's close confidant; he encouraged her first literary efforts and they went on a long tour of Scotland together in 1824, clouded by the death of their beloved eldest brother Thomas. Within the next five years their father's textile business failed, the father died and the family home was sold; from now on James needed to supplement his earnings as a preacher by teaching, both formally and with private pupils - luckily he was a born teacher.


His brilliance and industry as a student enabled him to obtain funding from the College to complete his course. Just in time, Dr Carpenter at Bristol needed a successor to head his school, and James eagerly accepted. He and Helen Higginson could now begin at least to discuss a ministry which would enable them to marry, and just in time again he was invited to Dublin, where Rev Philip Taylor needed an assistant. In September 1828, still only 23, he sailed for Dublin, found a house in which he could take six pupils, started his ministry and in December went to Derby to be married and bring his bride back to their first home. A year later a daughter was born who died in infancy. Apart from this it was a happy time, but the congregation was small and James's powers were underused. During this period he collected a first book of Hymns for Christian Worship.


After 3 years Dr Taylor died; James was to succeed him. But this meant taking as part of his stipend the Regium Donum or Royal Bounty, an ancient form of state benefit recognising the position of the Protestant church in a Catholic nation; this he felt unable to do. Moreover, since the money came to the congregation not the minister, he had to tell them so and give them the choice of forgoing the money and retaining him, or keeping the money and finding another minister. The letter he wrote them is a masterpiece, but the congregation took it as a resignation.


Principles apart, leaving Ireland involved the loss not only of the stipend but of the income from the school and the capital James and Helen had invested in the house; it was imperative that he should find another pulpit immediately. But some months, during which he attended his chapel as a member of the congregation, passed before he was invited as a candidate to Liverpool, and in the summer of 1832 the little family (son and daughter) took up residence. He was a great success there, but he worked very hard: 7am young men's class twice a week; 7 other classes 3 days a week 11-4.30 (3 quarters of an hour for dinner); 2 Sunday classes; writing Priestley papers and chemical lectures at Mechanics' Institute; evening visits 2 or 3 times a week; Friday evenings preparation for Sunday: 10am lecture 11 service, then class for children; dinner 2.30; at 4 a class for senior girls, then boys; tea in the committee-room; evening service 6.30.


After 4 years he started Tuesday evening discussion meetings, and once a month Thursday evening open house for young people. He also accepted the presidency of the Philosophical Society and took a full part in Liverpool's social life; in his spare time he enjoyed teaching his own children languages, science and music. He did however take good holidays in Britain and abroad. It was a prosperous period for the family - there were now four children, and 3 more arrived in Liverpool.


Two clouds were looming, however: one was the declining health, and in 1846 the death, of a 10yr old son. The other was the deteriorating relationship with Harriet, who had been pursuing her literary career and had achieved fame in political circles also on a two-year tour of America, as well as in England, for her championship of anti-slavery, women's rights etc. Setting out for Europe, she was taken ill and James had to go and bring her home.


During 4 years of self- imposed seclusion, unceasing pain and constant writing at Tynemouth, near their eldest sister and her doctor husband in Newcastle (who pronounced her abdominal tumour incurable), a coolness sprang up. The first cause was Harriet's attitude to correspondence; she had an obsession that all personal letters should be destroyed as soon as received: to keep them was a breach of confidence. James could not agree, regarding letters as keepsakes to be treasured.


As a result, subsequent letters from Harriet became 'short, summary and

dictatorial...and betrayed a sharp impatience which gave notice that any exchange of ideas was useless and that the condition of happy intercourse must be the suppression of all serious dissent from her judgments.' Then, in 1844 Harriet was persuaded to try Mesmerism as a cure, and to everyone's surprise found it successful. She was soon able to travel again , set about building a house in Ambleside, writing voluminously on all topics.


Being Harriet, she had eventually to publish, in the form of Letters on the Law of Man's Nature and Development not only her account of her cure, but her opinions, and those of her mesmerist, Mr Atkinson, on Man, Nature and God, (they preferred a 'First Cause'). Several members of the family were horrified, James among them. Unfortunately he felt obliged to write a scathing criticism of the book in a journal in which he was responsible for reviewing recent philosophical writing; and Harriet never spoke to him again. In later life James clearly regretted his uncharacteristic hastiness, declaring his love for his sister unchanged, and tried to rationalise his reactions. One suspects that he was outraged less by Harriet's desertion of the simple Christian piety which was their joint heritage than by the suspicion (which others had no scruples in assuming) that Harriet was in love with her curer who had supplanted him as hero in her eyes.


Meanwhile, James's prowess as a lecturer had become famous. He was on the staff of the College, now returned to Manchester, which meant regular commuting between Manchester and Liverpool. He took his now nearly grownup family to Germany for a year's tour while a new chapel was being built at Hope St, Liverpool. It was opened on his return in Oct 1849, his old mentor Thos Madge preaching. James was now at the height of his powers and his life inextricably involved with Unitarian affairs nationally - the Dissenters' Chapels Act, the opening of the universities to dissenters without doctrinal tests, and the decision to remove Manchester College to London (associated with UCL) where in due course he became principal 1869-85, president -87.


James, though always calling himself a Unitarian, would never allow his congregation to be called so, insisting that they were individual thinkers agreeing only on the Universality of God. He hated controversy, above all about religion, regarding it as the antithesis of Christ's teaching. What could be more absurd than that, when proposed for the Chair of Philosophy at UCL in 1866, he was defeated by those who felt it "inconsistent with the [college's] principle of complete religious neutrality... to appoint ...a candidate eminent as a minister and preacher of one among the various sects which divide the religious world".


James was always a devoted family man, and as soon as it could be afforded, took them all (including in due course two daughters-in-law and a son-in-law) on holiday together to Scotland, where a house near Aviemore became their annual base. From here they would meet him on return from his prodigious walks; in the evenings the Spinnies (as the 3 spinster daughters called themselves) would copy out his writings, and observe as he reached his 90s 'how much more he notices outside things...the flowers, trees etc' than when he had been immersed in his studies. No grandchildren were born, but his genius for friendship bore fruit in the love of the many friends, young and old, who visited and maintained detailed and affectionate correspondence with him until his death at the age of 95 in January 1900.


2.  Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) - short version


Harriet Martineau, journalist and writer, was best known as a populariser of political economy, though her career spanned many other aspects of Victorian literary culture.


The daughter of a Unitarian Norwich cloth manufacturer, she shot to fame in 1832 as author of Illustrations of Political Economy - twenty-four short stories showing how economic conditions impacted on the lives of ordinary people in a variety of social environments.


She visited America from 1834-6 and identified with the anti-slavery cause, which she promoted in her journalism for the rest of her working life.

She also wrote travel books on America and the Middle East, besides political analyses of conditions in India and Ireland, and can be regarded as the first significant British woman sociologist.


Her lively and provocative Autobiography was written in 1855 but published posthumously in 1877. Despite two extended periods of ill-health, from 1839-44, and from 1855 until her death, the last phase of Harriet Martineau's career was as a journalist primarily for The Daily News (though she wrote for many other journals and papers].


Harriet Martineau was a unique figure in Victorian culture, and a key contributor to a wide range of its intellectual and social debates.


More information on Harriet


Harriet Martineau, the daughter of a textile manufacturer from Norwich, was born in 1802. Thomas and Elizabeth Martineau were Unitarians and held progressive views on the education of girls. The four girls received a similar education to their four brothers. However, where the boys were trained for a career, the girls were expected to stay at home.


Harriet thought this was very unfair and in 1823 the Unitarian journal, the Monthly Repository, published her anonymous article, 'On Female Education'. Her eldest brother, Thomas, praised it, and when he discovered that his sister was the author, said, "Now, dear, leave it to other women to make shirts and darn stockings, and do you devote yourself to this."


James introduced her to his college friend, John Hugh Worthington, to whom she became engaged, but the relationship was beset by doubts and difficulties on all sides. Harriet suggests in the Autobiography that she was relieved when circumstances intervened to prevent their marrying: Worthington became seriously ill and died.


Instead of marrying Harriet continued writing, including articles for the Monthly Repository. After her father's death in 1826 it had become doubly necessary for her to earn her own living. Deaf since the age of twelve, she would have been unsuitable as a governess, and though she was prepared to support herself with needlework, writing soon provided her with a career as well as her independence. Following the successful launch of her Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-4), Harriet moved to London in November 1832.


As well as articles for the Monthly Repository, Harriet wrote two religious books: Devotional Exercises for the Use of Young Persons (1823) and Addresses for the Use of Families (1826). She then turned to the ambitious project of writing books on the new science of political economy. The material was presented as a series of stories aimed at the ordinary reader and revealed both her passion for social reform and the influence of men like Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith and David Ricardo. The series, Illustrations of Political Economy, was followed by two other series, Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated (1833-4) and Illustrations of Taxation (1834).


Now financially secure, Harriet Martineau decided to spend the next two years travelling in the USA. She claimed that her main purpose in going was for rest and recreation: she also felt it would be good to 'rough it' for a while, though she chose America rather than Europe because she was interested in seeing how the American democratic principles worked. Known as an abolitionist on the strength of her political economy tale, Demerara, she was immediately drawn into the anti-slavery cause, which remained a lifelong passion.


On her return she published Society in America (1837). The book was mainly a critique of America's attempt to live up to its democratic principles. Harriet was especially concerned about the treatment of women and called one chapter, 'The Political Non-existence of Women'. She claimed that women were treated like slaves. They were "given indulgence rather than justice". She argued for an improvement in women's education, so that "marriage need not be their only object in life". She also used her American experiences in the more popular travel book, Retrospect of Western Travel (1838).


In 1839 Harriet Martineau had her first novel, Deerbrook, published. This was followed by The Hour and the Man (1840) based on the life of the Haitian leader, Toussaint L'Ouverture. The Playfellow, a volume of children's stories, was published in 1841.


Harriet was travelling in Europe in 1839 when she fell ill and was brought to Newcastle to be near her medical brother-in-law, Thomas Michael Greenhow. Moving to lodgings in Tynemouth, she spent five years as an invalid, suffering from a prolapsed uterus and ovarian cyst. Fully expecting to die, she claimed to have been cured by mesmerism, on the strength of which she eagerly resumed work.


She moved to the Lake District in 1845, where she designed and organised the building of her house at Ambleside. Her next publications were Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848), based on her trip to Egypt and the Holy Lands, and History of the Peace (1849), a history of England between 1816 and 1846, followed by the Introduction to the History of the Peace 1800 - 1815 (1851), with later extensions.


Next came Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development (1851): this book created a sensation for asserting her belief in a First Cause but rejecting her former religious beliefs. The publication of the book ended her friendship with her brother, James Martineau, who was now a leading figure in the Unitarian Church.


In 1852, Harriet joined the staff of the Daily News. Over the next 16 years she wrote more than 1600 articles for the newspaper. She also wrote articles on various subjects, including the employment of women, for the Edinburgh Review, the Westminster Review and on state education for girls in the Cornhill Magazine. She contributed articles and stories to smaller journals such as Tait's, Household Words and Once a Week.


In 1853 she published The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, Freely Translated and Condensed by Harriet Martineau.


In 1866 she joined with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Emily Davies, Dorothea Beale and Frances Mary Buss to present a petition asking Parliament to grant women the vote. She had already written articles in favour of women being allowed to enter the medical profession.


During the American Civil War (1861-5), in her regular leaders for the Daily News, she saw it as her role to 'sustain.... the virtuous people & their cause, & to expose the weakness, as well as the ignorance & guilt of the - (not South but) Seccessionists.'


After her retirement, in 1869 Harriet again wrote a short series of articles for the Daily News, attacking the Contagious Diseases Acts. These Acts had been introduced in the 1860s in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the armed forces. Harriet objected in principle to laws that only applied to women. Under the terms of these Acts, the police could arrest women they believed were prostitutes and could then insist that they have a medical examination. She helped form the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Later, Josephine Butler was to become the leading figure in this organisation, but she admitted that it was Harriet Martineau who got the campaign going.


Having enjoyed a ten-year respite from the illness of 1839-45, Harriet had begun to feel unwell again in 1855. Convinced that she was about to die from heart failure, she wrote her two-volume Autobiography at breakneck speed over three months. Although she lived for another twenty-one years and continued her work for the Daily News, the Autobiography remained unaltered and unpublished until after her death in 1876, when it was completed by a third volume of commentary by Maria Weston Chapman, an American abolitionist friend.


An autopsy proved that the cyst she believed to have been cured by mesmerism in 1845 had in fact continued growing to an enormous size and had been causing the symptoms she and her doctors at first wrongly attributed to heart disease. She died in Ambleside in 1876.


Although much of Harriet Martineau's work was closely tied to social and political events of her day, she remains significant as a campaigner for the rights of women, slaves, and other minority groups who lacked a voice. Her Autobiography is vivid, and outspoken: indeed it is one of the best nineteenth century women's autobiographies. There were few areas of Victorian life on which she was unwilling to comment, and few well-known contemporaries from the worlds of literature and politics with whom she was unfamiliar.





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