Yesterday, Humanists UK Vice President Alice Roberts and Lord Mayor of Bristol Paula O’Rourke unveiled a blue plaque for local humanist icon Emma Martin (1812–1851), following a successful fundraising initiative by Bristol Humanists. The event brought together invitees from Bristol and beyond to celebrate Martin’s inspiring, radical legacy.
Close to the site of her former home, the plaque pays tribute to the remarkable life and work of Emma Martin, who transformed from devout Christian to firebrand of atheism, socialism, and feminism. She went on to lecture before crowds of thousands, challenging religious oppression and advocating for women’s rights. In her later years, she practised as a midwife, continuing to support women to exercise control over their own bodies. She wrote: ‘I would rather give my daughters a set of physiological and obstetric books for their perusal, than allow them to read the Levitical law’.
Spearheaded by Humanists UK partner group Bristol Humanists, who last year inaugurated an annual lecture in Emma Martin’s name, the plaque makes visible one strand of a rich humanist heritage in the city, and highlights one of its undersung heroes. The unveiling was attended by a number of those whose work has helped to unearth such stories, including historian Sheila Rowbotham, whose groundbreaking Hidden from History explored 300 years of women’s struggle for equality; and Nan Sloane, whose Uncontrollable Women charted a history of radical, reformist, and revolutionary women little remembered today.
Humanist Heritage walking tour in Bristol
Few personify Bristol’s remarkable history of humanist activism more than Emma Martin, and her plaque is one stop along the new Humanist Bristol Tour, available now using the walking app Go Jauntly. This joins free self-led walks in London, Manchester, and Belfast, uncovering the stories of those humanists who shaped – and were shaped by – these cities.
Of Emma Martin’s remarkable legacy, author Nan Sloane said:
‘Emma was a woman who believed fiercely – and sometimes to extremes – in causes which, in the long run, have proved to be correct. She would regard the current state of women’s rights – however imperfect and precarious – with a considerable degree of satisfaction. She would find it extraordinary that the clergy still sit in the legislature and that religion still has such a strong hold, but she would also, I think, be a humanist stirring everyone else up to action. She was a woman of her time, but also, in her own way, absolutely a woman of ours.’
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:
‘Humanists UK’s own Humanist Heritage project has sought to shed light on this often hidden history; to uncover the diverse and significant contributions made by humanists across the UK for hundreds of years. And, importantly, to make this rich history more visible by highlighting those monuments, gathering places, homes, workplaces, and sites of birth and burial, which testify to it. Now tens of thousands of people will pass this plaque on a daily basis, and more people will know the name of Emma Martin than ever before.’
Humanists UK Vice President Alice Roberts said:
‘We know it’s possible to live happy and moral lives without religion, but those who attacked Emma Martin weren’t so sure. Today, in the UK, women have more control over their lives, their bodies, and their relationships than Emma might have dared to dream. But these are rights that have been hard won, and they are not universally applied. These are rights that need defending, and fighting for, but the example of people like Emma shows us that change is possible.’
Chrissie Hackett, chair of Bristol Humanists, said:
‘Bristol Humanists are delighted to be celebrating the life of Emma Martin, one of our heroines! As a free-thinker, public speaker, socialist and advocate of women’s rights, she fearlessly challenged the religious status quo, paving the way for all of us to enjoy the freedoms that we now take for granted. This blue plaque ensures that she is finally recognised in her home city and can continue to inspire us today.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanist Heritage Coordinator Madeleine Goodall at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about the life of Emma Martin on Humanist Heritage
Visit the Humanist Heritage website, explore the timeline of humanist thinking and our interactive map of humanist landmarks and stories, and see all the walks on Go Jauntly.
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Bristol Civic Society is an independent, voluntary organisation that exists to improve Bristol’s built environment and celebrate its heritage. Since 2015, the Bristol Blue Plaques Scheme has been administered by its Blue Plaques Panel. The Scheme recognises past residents who lived for at least some time within Bristol’s boundaries, and who have made important contributions to Bristol and/or the wider world.
Picture credit: Mark Pickthall photography
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.