The Birmingham Civic Society


Entrance to

Birmingham Council House

Click to enlarge

Robert Martineau

(1798 - 1870)

Robert Martineau and his wife Jane Smith (d.1874) were the progenitors of the Birmingham branch of the remarkable Unitarian and liberal Martineau family. Robert was the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Martineau of Norwich and was one of eight siblings. These included Thomas, a well-known eye surgeon, the Rev. Professor James Martineau, a renowned Unitarian theologian, philosopher and academic and the famous (some of her critics would have said infamous) Harriet Martineau, a prolific and controversial author, journalist, economist and social scientist.

Robert and his colleague Brooke Smith began the firm of Martineau and Smith in the 1820s, possibly as cotton importers, but the source of the family prosperity came from their success in 1830s Birmingham as brass founders, manufacturers and traders. Martineau and Smith subsequently had a continuous existence for over a century.

Robert began the Martineau tradition of public service in Birmingham which included five generations of Mayors and Lord Mayors (a Blue Plaque in the Council House commemorates this achievement).

As a liberal he became politically active in the 1830s and was involved in the great Birmingham radicalisation that secured the 1832 Reform Act and as a Unitarian dissenter assisted in the freeing of the City from Church Rates.


He was also active in the 1840s Birmingham Anti -Corn League. Following the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, Birmingham progressed in 1838 from local government by nominated Street Commissioners to elected Councillors. Robert served latterly as a Commissioner and then became Councillor for the Edgbaston ward from 1842. It is a mark of his zeal and ability that by 1846 he was made Mayor of the City and then an Alderman until his retirement due to ill health and near blindness in 1856.

During this time, he was an active Magistrate and was connected with various public institutions and charities including the new General Hospital, the Music Festival in the new, now iconic, Town Hall, Bailiff of the alms houses of Lench’s Trust and his work in establishing the Edgbaston Proprietary School of which his son Thomas was the first pupil entered. Robert died in 1870 in the house that he built for his large family in Highfield Rd, Edgbaston. The house still stands and is now an hotel.

Robert Martineau is buried in Key Hill cemetery in Grave site I 790 along with his mother Elizabeth, his wife Jane, his sister Harriet and his children Robert, Marie and Susan. Other members of his family are buried close by in K 134.

Robert Martineau

A biography

Born 1798 Norwich

Died 1870 Birmingham

Father Thomas, Mother Elizabeth

4 sisters, Elizabeth, Rachel, Harriett and Ellen, 3 Brothers Thomas, Henry and James

Robert left Norwich in 1818 after a brief stay in London he moved to Dudley (near Birmingham) where he joined in the nail making business of his future wife’s uncle.

He married June Smith in 1825 they had 3 children Robert, Thomas and Susan

 He settled in Birmingham in 1928 where he set up in business as a brass cock founder. Which was a successful business and was still operating into the early 20th century. It is not known why Robert chose Birmingham but freedom of religious expression may have been a factor – Birmingham was not yet an incorporated borough and therefore not subject to the Five Mile Act, which meant that Unitarians and non-conformists could worship freely.

In 1831 became a street commissioner who as Birmingham was an unincorporated Borough meant they along with justices were (with certain officers) it’s government.

1838 During a dinner at Robert’s house a decision was made to set up Edgbaston Proprietary School to provide education for nonconformists, who at the time were not admitted to Kings Edwards. The school, after King Edwards rescinded the exclusion of nonconformists, in 1860 it became Kings Edwards Five Ways

In 1838 Birmingham became an Incorporated Borough, Robert having previously been a street commissioner was elected Alderman and later Lord Mayor serving 1846, 1847

He retired from the council in 1858 having become almost blind in 1854

Outside the borough council he was deeply involved (amongst other things) the General Hospital and the Homeopathic Hospital, and with Lench’s Trust which he became a trustee in 1833 and was later bailiff.

An Obituary states ‘In the Town Council, his career was marked by devotion to its truest interests, by great unselfish sacrifices of time and care, and he was amongst the earliest and most honoured of our Mayors

He lived in a substantial and elegant period property in Edgbaston which included a wing where his mother lived spending her later years in Birmingham.

Died June 17th 1870  in Edgbaston and is buried in Key Hill Cemetery