Robert Francis Martineau

(1831 - 1909)

Robert Francis Martineau known to his family and friends as Frank-was a member of the Birmingham branch of the remarkable Martineau family who, inspired by their Unitarian faith, provided from the 1840s to the 1980s a continual commitment to public service and social reform, including five Mayors and Lord Mayors. (A Blue Plaque may be seen in Birmingham Council House commemorating their achievements.) Frank was the son of Robert Martineau who became Mayor in 1846 and the brother of Sir Thomas, Mayor from 1884 to 1887.

He was the favourite nephew of the internationally famous journalist, author, economist, social scientist and propagandist for liberal progressive causes including anti-slavery and women’s emancipation, Harriet Martineau, spending holidays at her home in Ambleside in the Lake District. Frank was educated at the Edgbaston Proprietary School which was co-founded by his father and then worked as a traveller for the family firm of Martineau and Smith who manufactured and traded brass industrial products.

His first appearance in public life seems to have been in 1862 when he was the Secretary of the local fund for relief of Lancashire cotton workers who as a consequence of the American Civil War were in severe distress. The workers, like Frank, had an anti-slavery, anti-Confederate stance. From 1870 to 1900, Frank was the Liberal Councillor for the St. Bartholomew’s Ward and in 1900 was made an Alderman. His two main interests were education and public health. In 1869, he was active in the National Education League. The NEL had developed from the Birmingham Education League founded by George Dixon, Jesse Collings and Joseph Chamberlain. The aim of the NEL was the establishment of a secular primary education for every child in the Country, funded and directed by local government with free admission and compulsory attendance.

He saw long service on the Public Health Committee, involved in such issues as the clearance of the unsanitary Park Street Burial Ground and as a Trustee of Mason’s College the collegiate forerunner of Birmingham University. He was also Chairman of the Technical School Committee and saw the Midland Institute as his “second home” where he supported the teaching of science. With his sister Susan he was involved in Birmingham’s Homeopathic Hospital and served as its Secretary. Frank Martineau’s strong liberal convictions can be seen in his support of Josephine Butler, the Suffragist and campaigner against child prostitution and then as a critic of the conduct of the Boer War when he opposed the granting of the Freedom of the City of Birmingham to Lord Roberts the Commander of the British forces in South Africa.

When Joseph Chamberlain’s pro-imperialist Liberal Unionist policies tragically split the Liberal Party, Frank remained loyal to Gladstone while his brother Thomas and many friends supported Chamberlain. Robert Francis Martineau seems to have been held in genuine affection by his contemporaries and at his death in 1909 was described as a shy, modest gentle man. He is buried in Key Hill Cemetery in the same grave as his parents, his sisters Maria and Susan and his beloved Aunt Harriet.