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Emma Martin 1811-1851
Bristolian Freethinker

On 23rd Feb 2023 Bristol Humanists unveiled a Blue Plaque in memory of Emma Martin in Bridewell Street just off Bristol City Centre near where Emma Martin once lived. The first annual Emma Martin lecture was held on 2nd Nov 2022 with author and speaker Nan Sloane

Her new book, Uncontrollable Women: Radicals, Reformers and Revolutionaries, is published by Bloomsbury (IB Tauris), and was chosen as one of the Guardian newspaper’s Books of the Day.

""Emma Martin was a devoted and outspoken proponent of atheism and Owenism, turning a rhetorical talent and Biblical knowledge gained from earlier Christian evangelism to the causes of socialism, women’s rights, and freedom of belief. Martin advanced these principles first as a lecturer, and later as a midwife, consistently demonstrating a devotion to humankind underpinned by a deeply felt feminism and an undeniably humanist philosophy."" Our Emma Martin Blue plaque was put in place on the side of the Old Fire Station in Bridewell Street Bristol on the 23rd of February which was the day she was baptised at St James just a short distance away. We are uncertain of her birth date and so this was the date chosen for the event. Emma lived near Bridewell Bridge which is now hidden beneath the road and just underneath where the plaque is installed in the centre of Bristol. Emma Moody and her two daughters, who are descendants of Emma Martin, attended the event with Professor Alice Roberts who is vice president of Humanists UK, and Bristol Mayor Paula O'Rourke who both kindly unveiled the plaque on behalf of Bristol Humanists. We would like to thank everyone involved who made this event happen. We will be posting further details of Emma Martin's life and work and our Blue Plaque event which was a great success.Last year we had the first annual Bristol Humanists Emma Martin Lecture given by author and speaker Nan Sloane who has written several books on radical women in the public space. Later this year on October 2nd we will be having our Emma Martin Day Lecture entitled "Am I Normal" with speaker Sarah Cheyney. Check out our page on Meetups for further details of Bristol Humanists events.



""Emma Bullock, the fourth child of William Bullock, a cooper, was born in Bristol in about 1811. Her mother, Hannah Jones, whose family owned a tea-dealing business in the city. Emma's father died in her infancy, and a year later her mother married her second husband, John Gwyn, and the family moved into the middle-class area of Clifton. 

Emma grew up with a strong Christian faith.. This resulted in her decision, at the age of seventeen, to join the Particular Baptists - a sternly Calvinist wing of the Baptist church who believed in salvation only for the elect.  She remained in the church as a "zealous disciple of Jesus" for twelve years, distributing evangelical tracts and collecting for the Bible Society.

In 1830, at the age of eighteen, Emma became the proprietor of a short-lived ladies' seminary and later a ladies' boarding-school. In 1831 she married a businessman, Isaac Martin, also a Baptist, and over the next few years she had three daughters.  He was, however, "a husband… whose company it was a humiliation to endure." 

Emma Martin: Socialist

In 1839 Emma Martin she heard a lecture by Alexander Campbell, a man who had been deeply influenced by the writings of Robert Owen. Campbell was a socialist who was involved with an increasingly militant trade unionism in Scotland. In 1834 he had been imprisoned for his involvement with the unstamped press. Campbell also campaigned against the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) and helped organise the Cotton Spinners' Union. In 1838 he was appointed by the Association of All Classes and All Nations (later renamed the Rational Society). as a "social missionary" to preach the Owenite gospel. 

Emma Martin became convinced by Campbell's message and later that year Emma Martin attended the Owenite Congress held in Birmingham and was astounded to hear "so close a transcript of many of the thoughts that had passed in my mind". However, she disagreed at first with the socialists about Christianity. She challenged the socialists to public debates on the validity of Christianity. One who took part in a debate with her commented that "She is a lady of considerable talent". 

Isaac Martin was opposed to her socialist and feminist political opinions and she was forced to leave the family home. All her property, by law, now belonged to her husband. Now without means of keeping herself or her daughters, she embarked on a career as a lecturer. "Emma Martin... concentrated on physiology, the condition of women and socialism. She developed her feminism and argued the case that woman's subordinate position was due to lack of education; she blamed the marriage system which made a woman an object of a commercial transaction." 


New Moral World reported that Emma Martin argued that if women had a good standard of education it would benefit men. "Mrs Martin lectured at our Institution yesterday afternoon, on the errors of our present Social System, particularly as respects the condition of women; after displaying the great and appalling evil of society as at present constituted, and the opposition generally made to all improvements, she dwelt upon the inefficient education of her own sex, especially in those arts and sciences would assist them in the discharge of their duties as wives and mothers, and commented upon the apathy existing among women upon this important subject." 

Emma Martin would give a course of three lectures. She visited Macclesfield in January 1841: "On Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evenings, the 17th, 18th, and 19th instant, we had a course of lectures from the talented Mrs Martin, whose powers of oratory and logical skill must convince the most scrupulous, that women is capable of being trained and educated equal with man. The order of her lectures ran thus: 1, 'Religion of the New Moral World'; 2, 'The Doctrine of Responsibility'; 3, 'The Marriage System'. It is unnecessary to say more upon these lectures, here, as the audiences were so well satisfied with the arguments adduced by the lectures, that, at the concluding lecture, they passed the following resolution: 'That it is the opinion of this meeting, that Mrs E. Martin will render the cause of human improvement a great and lasting benefit, if she will kindly condescend to have her three lectures published." 

Her biographer, Barbara Taylor, argues that Emma Martin's religious beliefs gradually began to crumble. "Faced with the arguments of the freethinking Owenites - whose ideas on women's rights so strongly echoed her own - and made wretched by her personal circumstances, she felt the ground of Christian conviction begin to give way beneath her... She took the leap of faith and joined the socialists as a declared freethinker. Within a year she was one of the movement's best-known women adherents, lecturing, writing, and debating anti-socialists, particularly clerical ones, all over Britain. From having been a vigorous campaigner in Christ's cause, she became one of the church's most vociferous opponents, notorious for her knockabout style of free-thought polemic and for her hostility to conventional Christian views on women and marriage."

Emma Martin became one of Owenism's most enthusiastic orators and tractarians, covering thousands of miles and issuing tens of thousands of pamphlets. "Singing Social Hymns, attending meetings of the Socialist Ladies' Tract Committee, naming children at the conclusion of a Sunday School sermon... small wonder Emma could move so readily from Baptism to Owenism. From being an evangelical in Christ's cause, she became one of the leading evangelizers of infidel Socialism, within a milieu and style that seemed to alter very little with the transfer of allegiances." 

In her lectures Emma Martin compared the various religions but believed that the ideas advocated by Robert Owen "contained all the best parts of each, and was calculated in a superior degree to satisfy, direct, and elevate the human mind. It was true it had no creed - no ceremony - except the charity she recommended could be termed so." At the end of the lecture she concluded "by inviting any lady or gentleman to come forward and object to any thing she had advanced, if they dissented from her views, saying that by these means she might be led to refute any objections which the arguments contained in her lectures had not fairly met. No one, however, came forward for that purpose." 

In 1841 the Owenite annual congress Emma Martin pointed out that "she had grown up from infancy with high thoughts and strong hopes of an improvement in the condition of her sex, but that all institutions for mental improvement were confined to males, and that even the morals of the female sex were of a different stamp to those of the male. She saw no remedy for this till she saw the remedy of Socialism. When all should labour for each, and each be expected to labour for the whole, then would woman be placed in a position in which she would not sell her liberties." 

Emma Martin took a keen interest in the subject of crime and punishment. In a speech in Nottingham she linked the problems in this area with Christianity: "I hardly need say the sermon was the right sort, and went to the very root of the evil, whence has originated the crimes that have rendered capital punishments apparently necessary. Kingcraft and priestcraft, and the Bible as the text book of both, were denounced as the great obstacles to the improvement of the people. Christianity was shown to be the best apology for crime, while it was the most decided opponent of every thing that could elevate, enlighten, and improve mankind. These sentiments were received with the most evident satisfaction - a proof that the people are prepared to hear the whole truth on such subjects." 

Newspaper reports of Emma Martin's lectures described audiences of up to 3000, strongly divided in their views and expressing their opinions in raucous and sometimes violent forms. Emma's strident atheism was particularly provocative - so much so that even some of her fellow socialists objected. In 1842, angered by this lack of support from the movement, she and her fellow atheist George Holyoake set up the Anti-Persecution Union to defend freethinkers charged with blasphemy. Sometimes her meetings ended up with an anti-Owenite mob stoning her. 

George Holyoake

Emma Martin assigned great importance to the role of education in women's advancement. She also argued that only a propertyless, communal society would provide the conditions for genuine sexual equality. "What is woman's most glorious character? Is it not to kiss the hand that strikes her, to honour and obey her lord and master, and be the tame servant of the priest? To have no will of her own. To be the football of society thankful for its kicking. You know it is! Is it not dreadful when one of the sex begins to think for herself? Why others will follow the horrible example! and where will it end? Common sense will usurp the place of spiritualism, and liberty and love will replace priestcraft. I fear I shall live to see that dreadful day!" 

Richard Carlile, one of the most important radical leaders in England and had spent many years in prison for championing a free press, died of a bronchial infection on 10th February 1843.  Emma Martin was selected to give the funeral oration at the Hall of Science, City Road, London. Her address was reported by George Holyoake in his newspaper, Oracle of Reason

"The authoress of this discourse is one of those admirable women who prove that the appellation of 'better half' of mankind, is no fictional compliment, but a sober and cheering verity. No woman ever before said the bold and excellent things which continually fall from the lips of this lady. Not less quick in perceiving just principles than energetic in advocating just action - she stands forward in denouncing conventional wrong, when men are found cold, calculating, and prudent. When public meetings have been held to solicit protection for parties imprisoned for opinions' sake - no matter what their opinions were - no matter whether they were atheists or not - no matter that men had certain squeamish fears about taking an unqualified part in their defence - no matter who approved or who disapproved - without caring for certain respectable cant, relative to feelings, propriety, and decency outraged - she stood the eloquent and uncompromising defender of every man and woman's right to speak their own sentiments in their own words." 


In 1845 Emma Martin began living with Joshua Hopkins, an engineering worker, and she bore him a daughter, Manon in 1847. The second marriage brought her great happiness and some stability.  However, she came under attack from other Owenites who accused her of alienating support through her extremism. She responded by leaving the movement and began training as a midwife. In 1847, the year in which her fourth daughter was born, she graduated in midwifery and, having been refused hospital positions because of her atheism, began practising privately from her home at 100 Long Acre, Covent Garden, London, where her daughters also ran a surgical bandage shop. She lectured to women in gynaecology, gave courses in midwifery, and offered contraceptive advice. 

Emma Martin died of tuberculosis at Holly Vill, Finchley Common, Whetstone, Middlesex, on 8th October 1851. George Holyoake commented: "What do we not owe to a woman who, like Emma Martin, takes the heroic side and teaches us … the truth of a gentler faith?.. We have lost the most important woman… on our side."  Holyoake called for subscriptions for her gravestone for which hundreds gave, including many women who offered remembrance of "that advocacy of women's social elevation which Mrs Martin so ably rendered". 


""Emma Martin, a woman well known as a writer, and as an exemplar of Socialism, died on the 8th of October, at Finchley Common, near London, in the 39th year of her age. The London Leader, the organ of the British Socialists, says, that, "allied to a husband (found in the religious circle in which she was reared in Bristol) whose company it was a humiliation to endure, she ultimately, even when she was the mother of three children, refused to continue to submit to it. This, though afterwards made a reproach to her, was so justifiable, that even her religious friends found no fault with it. After much struggling to support her children unaided, she was united to another husband (Mr. Joshua Hopkins), her former one yet living. Though no marriage ceremony was performed, or could be performed (such is the moral state of our law, which denies divorce to all who are wronged, if they happen to be also indigent), yet no affection was ever purer, no union ever more honorable to both parties, and the whole range of priest-made marriages never included one to which happiness belonged more surely, and upon which respect could dwell more truly. Our first knowledge of Mrs. Martin," continues the Leader, "was as an opponent of Socialism, against which she delivered public lectures. But as soon as she saw intellectual truth in it, she paused in her opposition to it. Long and serious was the conflict the change in her convictions caused her; but her native love of truth prevailed, and she came over to the advocacy of that she had so resolutely and ably assailed. And none who ever offered us alliance, rendered us greater service, or did it at greater cost. Beautiful in expression, quick in wit, strong in will, eloquent in speech, coherent in conviction, and of stainless character, she was incomparable among public women. She was one of the few among the early advocates of English Socialism who saw that the conflict against religion could not be confined to an attack on forms of faith—to a mere comparison of creeds; and she attached only secondary importance to the abuses of Christianity, where she saw that the whole was an abuse of history, of reason, and of morality. Thus she was cut off from all hope or sympathy from her former connections, and she met with but limited friendships among her new allies. She saw further than any around her what the new communism would end in. She saw that it would establish the healthy despotism of the affections, in lieu of the factitious tyrannies of custom and Parliament. The nature of her opinions, which arose in conviction and not in antagonism, will best be seen in two passages from her writings, at two remarkable periods of her life. In 1835, she wrote in the Bristol Literary Magazine, which she edited:—

"'Infidelity is the effusion of weak minds, and the resource of guilty ones. Like the desolating Simoom of the desert, it withers every thing within its reach; and as soon as it has prostrated the morality of the individual, it invades the civil rights of society.'

"In 1844, in the seventh of her Weekly Addresses to the Inhabitants of London, of which it was the thirty-sixth thousand issued, she said:—

"'When Christianity arose, it gathered to its standard the polished Greek, the restless Roman, the barbarous Saxon; but it was suited only to the age in which it grew. It had anathemas for the bitter-hearted to hurl at those they chose to designate God's enemies. It had promises for the hopeful, cautions for the prudent, charity for the good. It was all things to all men. It became the grand leader of the ascetic to the convent—of the chivalrous to the crusade—of the cruel to the Star Chamber—of the scholar to the secret midnight cell, there to feed on knowledge, but not to impart it. But at length its contentional doctrines bade men look elsewhere for peace—for some less equivocal morality, some clearer doctrines, some surer truth.'

"In this belief she lived, worked, taught, and in this belief she died. And in passing to the kingdom of the inscrutable future, whose credentials could she better take than those she had won by her courage and truthfulness? Could she take Pagan, Buddhist, Mahommedan, Christian, or some morose sectarian shade; credentials soiled with age, torn in strifes, stained with blood?... Will any who calumniate the last hours of Freethinkers utter the pious fraud over this narrow bed, and the memory of Emma Martin be distorted, as have been those of Voltaire and our own Paine? Does the apparition of these outrages glare upon this grave—outrages too ignoble to notice, too painful to recognize? Heed them not—believe them not. Let not the Christian insult her whom only the grave has vanquished. Let him not utter the word of triumph over the dead, before whom living his coward tongue would falter. Let his manliness teach him truth if his creed has failed to teach him courtesy. As a worker for human improvement, Mrs. Martin was as indefatigable as efficient. From the time when she published her Exiles of Piedmont, to the issue of her essay on God's Gifts and Man's Duties, and later still, she wrote with ardor, always manifesting force of personal thought, and what is more unusual in the writings of women—strength and brevity of expression. Her lectures were always distinguished by the instruction they conveyed, and the earnestness with which they were delivered. In courage of advocacy and thoroughness of view, no woman except Frances Wright is to be compared with her; and only one, whose name is an affectionate household word in our land (greater, indeed, in order of power), resembles Mrs. Martin in largeness and sameness of speculation, and the capacity to treat womanly and social questions. Mrs. Martin had a strength of will which rules in all spheres, but ever chastened by womanly feeling. Her affectionate nature as much astonished those who knew her in private, as her resolution often astonished those who knew her in public. Indeed, she was the most womanly woman of all the advocates of "Woman's Rights." Her assertion of her claim to interfere in public affairs was but a means of winning security from outrage for the domestic affections. She would send the mother into the world—not in the desertion of motherly duties, but to learn there what motherly duties are—not to submit in ignorance to suckle slaves, but to learn how to rear free men and intelligent and pure women."

We have copied thus much of the Leader's obituary of Mrs. Martin, because a certain unpremeditated boldness in it admits the reader to instructive facts in the theory and practice of the party to which she belonged.""

The Literary Magazine - Bristol

Emma Martin wrote and edited the Literary Magazine in 1835 from 25 College Street Bristol. 

In 1795, 25 College Street was the home of Coleridge, Southey and George Burnett, the three originators of Pantisocracy. Coleridge and Southey met in Oxford and this scheme, to emigrate to America and found a utopian commune-like society in the wilderness, developed during their long discussions. The name for the proposed community came from the Greek pan-socratia, meaning an all-governing society.

William Friese-Greene was born at No.12, College Street (picture below) in 1855, when it was numbered 69. This photo was taken around a hundred years later, just before the street was demolished to make way for Bristol Council House.

An article from the International Magazine 

New York 1851

College Street 1949_.jpg

College Street, Bristol

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