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The animals’ emergency service

We’re killing two birds with one stone with this month’s blog. (Or, given the subject matter, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say patting two birds with one fluffy glove). Because not only is today National Pet Day, but we’re also reflecting on the 200th birthday of the oldest and largest animal welfare organisation in the world – the marvellous RSPCA.

The charity was founded in June 1824 as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). In the 200 years since then it has campaigned for and driven changes in animal protection laws and helped to change public attitudes to the treatment of animals, not to mention saved countless animals from suffering and neglect.

We celebrate this amazing organisation in a mini-exhibition at the museum, ‘200 years of saving animals’ lives’, which opened last summer and will run for the rest of this anniversary year. Curated by the RSPCA, it showcases the lifesaving work of the charity over two centuries and includes plenty of hands-on activities for visitors to enjoy. (Anyone fancy rescuing a sheep from a cliff?) 

An RSPCA-curated mini-exhibition opened at the museum last year.

Many of us are familiar with the role of the modern RSPCA, from its rescue and rehoming centres to its animal welfare work. But how many of us know how the organisation came to be or know of the huge leaps forward in animal welfare that it contributed to? Luckily, we’ve got a blog for that….

Animal welfare in the 19th century

It was in the great age of social reform, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, that issues of animal welfare first began to be widely and seriously debated. Until then animals had mainly been seen as valuable for work, food, clothing and sport but not much else. Questions around the ethical treatment of animals coincided with the rise, particularly among the middle class, of pet ownership. The use of animals in pulling carriages and wagons, in scientific experiments and in so-called entertainments like bear baiting and cock fighting all came under the microscope of reformers, politicians and churchmen. In 1822 the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act - spearheaded by politician Richard Martin and sometimes known as Martin’s Act - was passed in parliament.

Interestingly the first prosecution under the new act was conducted by Richard Martin himself. While his bill had made it illegal to harm certain animals, it also stipulated that it was up to private citizens to bring charges before magistrates. In 1822 Martin brought London costermonger Bill Burns to court for beating his donkey. To gasps and some hilarity, Martin brought the poor animal into the courtroom where its injuries and distress were evident. Burns was subsequently found guilty of cruelty.

Richard Martin brought an abused donkey into court during a prosecution for animal cruelty.

The RSPCA is born

Two years later Martin was in attendance, along with 21 other eminent reformers including anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, at a meeting organised by the Reverend Arthur Broome at Old Slaughters Coffee House in London. On that day, 16 June 1824, it was agreed to establish a new organisation, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), with Broome as honorary secretary. It was the first animal welfare charity to be founded anywhere in the world.

Prosecuting those who mistreated animals was at the heart of the SPCA’s mission. In its first six months the charity brought 63 offenders before the court. But it also wanted to promote better treatment of animals, and change people’s attitude towards animals. It did this through books, pamphlets and even church sermons. In 1865 the charity introduced ‘animal Sunday’, which became an annual event in churches across England and saw clergy preaching an anti-cruelty message.


Changing the law

The organisation also took on a lobbying role which resulted in a number of new laws being passed in parliament. In 1835 the Cruelty to Animals Act amended Martin’s Act and made animal baiting illegal, as well as cock fighting and dog fighting. New laws were also introduced to ban cruelty to dogs and domestic animals, and better legal standards were brought in at slaughterhouses. In that same year, Princess Victoria became the society’s patron. Three years later the now Queen Victoria granted the charity royal status, and it became known by its familiar name – the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Queen Victoria granted the charity royal status in 1840.

In 1876 the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed to control animal experimentation. In 1911 the Protection of Animals Act – inspired by the RSPCA - was passed. This important law tackled almost every type of cruelty to animals.


The RSPCA at war


Animals played a huge part in World War I, from the horses that were used to pull guns and supplies to dogs and birds that were employed as messengers. The RSPCA stepped in to provide help and support for animals that were co-opted into military service.

Within weeks of the war starting in 1914 the charity set up the RSPCA Fund for Sick and Wounded Horses. During the four years of war the fund raised more than £250,000 - the equivalent of around £12 million today - buying around 28 motorised and 180 horse-drawn veterinary ambulances for the front (one of which is on display at our museum). It also paid for four fully-equipped field hospitals, each of which could treat up to 2,000 horses at a time.

The charity also supported and trained men who served in the Army Veterinary Corps.

During World War II, 37 silver medals were awarded to RSPCA inspectors who risked their lives rescuing animals in dangerous bomb-littered areas.

(L) A World War I RSPCA veterinary ambulance on display at NESM; (above) during World War II inspectors helped rescue animals from bomb-damaged areas.

The RSPCA today

The modern RSPCA continues to play an active role, both in the creation of animal welfare legislation and in its enforcement. As recently as 2006, the passing of the Animal Welfare Act saw the most significant change to animal welfare law in nearly 100 years. It gave powers to prevent cruelty to animals from occurring, rather than just saving them afterwards. In 2019, wild animals in circuses were finally banned in England after 50 years of campaigning efforts, another huge win for animals.

As well as campaigning for laws to improve the lives of animals, the charity’s mission remains to rescue and care for animals in need and inspire people to treat animals with compassion and respect. Its wildlife centres, animal hospitals, clinics and branches treat more than 200,000 animals annually and rehome half a million animals.

Every year its call centre deals with around a million calls, and inspectors attend around 140,000 incidents of every description. In 2023, that included rescues of a cat called Mowgli who had fallen to the bottom of a 30 metre mineshaft in Cornwall; a pet iguana that escaped and got stuck up a tree; two beavers that were trapped in an overflow drain; and a two-metre long python found in a Plymouth car park! No wonder the RSPCA is seen as the emergency service for animals.


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