An advocate of women’s social elevation, duly commemorated by Bristol Humanists
After much research and fund-raising by Bristol Humanists, a blue plaque was unveiled on Thursday 23 February 2023 at Bridewell Street, Bristol. It honours Emma Martin, born in the city in 1812, who lived in the street in her thirties. She was raised with a strong Christian faith and, at seventeen, she joined a strict Calvinist wing of the Baptist church who believed in salvation only for the chosen. For twelve years Emma distributed evangelical tracts, collected for the Bible Society and for some of the time ran a religious training college for young women.
Then, in the late-1830s, she experienced a Damascene conversion: she came under the influence of social reformer Robert Owen, founder of the Co-operative movement. Emma jettisoned her Christian beliefs, took up the Owenite socialist cause and left her Baptist husband. Her religious fervour had now been replaced by an equally zealous interest in socialism, feminism and ‘freethinking’.
By law, all her property now belonged to her husband and without means of keeping herself or her daughters, she embarked on a career as a lecturer. She wrote many pamphlets for the Owenite movement and spoke publicly to thousands across the country. Here’s a rather patronising review of her 1841 meetings in Macclesfield: “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 are capable of being trained and educated equal with men.”
Emma’s strident atheism could land her in trouble, even with her fellow socialists. In 1845 she gave up her campaigning work and retrained as a midwife, but as an atheist she was barred from working in public hospitals so practised privately from her London home.
She died in 1851 from TB, at the age of 39.
The Lord Mayor, Cllr Paula O’Rourke and anatomist and biological anthropologist Professor Alice Roberts unveiled the plaque. Afterwards, we enjoyed coffee and cake and listened to eulogies about Emma Martin’s achievements. This was in the Bristol Wing, a boutique YMCA hostel which now occupies the site of her house. Thanks to Bristol Humanists for their adept arranging of the event and their hospitality.