Papers of the Martineau Family

Scope and Content

Correspondence relating to the Martineau family, made up in the main of the correspondence of Helen Martineau, James Martineau and Harriet Martineau.

Administrative / Biographical History

James Martineau

James Martineau was born on 21 April 1805 at Norwich to Thomas Martineau a cloth manufacture and his wife Elizabeth (née Rankin). There was an enthusiasm for learning in the Martineau household, and his older siblings played an important role in his early education. He was a pupil at the public grammar school in Norwich between 1815 and 1819, followed by Lant Carpenter's school in Bristol. In 1821 he began training for a career in engineering, however, despite paternal disapproval a year later he enrolled at Manchester College, York to train for the Unitarian ministry. There he was taught by Charles Wellbeloved, John Kendrick and William Turner. In 1827 he was invited to Bristol to stand in for Lant Carpenter, who was ill, taking over his class of 14 pupils. In 1829 he became a junior minister at the Eustace Street Presbyterian meeting house in Dublin. His stay in Dublin terminated after four years as a result of his refusal to accept the annual payment from Parliament to Presbyterian ministers. In 1832 he moved to Liverpool to become a minster at the Paradise Street Chapel. When Manchester College moved from York to Manchester in 1840, Martineau was appointed professor of mental and moral philosophy. He spent several months in Germany in 1848 where he absorbed and internalised aspects of German philosophy and theology which became a significant feature of his life and thought. Manchester College moved to London in 1853 and in 1857 they appointed Martineau as a full time tutor. As a result he ceased to be a minister in Liverpool, devoting himself full time to his academic work. However, in 1858 he took up a joint ministerial post at Portland Chapel. In 1869 he became the principal of Manchester College, retiring in 1885.

Martineau was a prolific publisher of books and articles. He wrote for the London Review, the Theological Review, the National Review and the Prospective Review. He wrote many books, among which were: The Rationale of Religious Enquiry (1836),A Study of Spinoza (1882), Types of Ethical Theory (1885), A Study of Religion (1888), and The Seat of Authority in Religion (1890). His various hymn books were also very influential and widely used by both Unitarians and Anglicans.

He was involved in numerous polemics in his lifetime. An important milestone in his life and thought was his involvement in the 'Liverpool Controversy' of 1839. Here he was one of the Unitarians who replied to a series of lectures by Anglicans on the 'errors' of Unitarianism. In responding he began to formulate and systematise his views on a range of theological issues. In 1851 he wrote a damning review of a book that Harriet Martineau had edited for Henry George Atkinson, marking an important rift between him and his famous sister, with whom he had hitherto been very close. In 1866, he was recommended for the chair of philosophy, mind and logic at University College, London, but despite the backing of the senate, the college council blocked his appointment. The development of Martineau's thought revolutionised Unitarian theology and led to divisions within the movement which still resonate among Unitarians today. He challenged the intellectual dominance of Joseph Priestley's philosophy with its deterministic outlook derived from the work of David Hartley, replacing it with a more spiritual theology inspired by romanticism and the transcendentalism of William Ellery Channing [?]which gave greater prominence to Christ [?]. Contrasting these views with his earlier beliefs, the historian R.K. Webb writes: 'He gave up external truth for intuition, metaphysics for ethics, and determinism for conscience and free will, and gradually abandoned his early belief in the historical validity of the scriptural miracles.' Martineau also had strong views on the denominational form of Unitarianism. He held that the word Unitarianism should only be used to refer to an individual's beliefs and not to a church or a movement. He was also keen on a broader union with other liberal Christian churches and individuals. With this in mind, along with J.J. Tayler he launched the Free Christian Union in 1867, which despite the allegiance of prominent churchmen and a degree of initial enthusiasm, was not a success. In 1872 he debated with Professor John Tyndall on the relationship between science and religion.

He married Helen Higginson on 18 December 1828; they had eight children, two of whom died young. Four of his daughters and one son survived him. He died on 11 January 1900.

Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau was born on 18 June 1802, the sixth child of Thomas and Elizabeth Martineau. Her early education was home based, mainly the work of older siblings, although she did attend a local school between 1813 and 1815, and another run by her aunt between 1818 and 1819. She was given religious instruction by the Rev Lant Carpenter who was very influential in the development of her commitment to Unitarianism. Her father had been a cloth manufacturer, but failure of the family firm following his death meant that Harriet had to fend for herself. Eventually she was to develop a lucrative career as a popular author: she published over fifty books and wrote for numerous periodicals. Her early reputation rested upon her popular expositions of political economy in which she is generally considered to have been a rather dogmatic exponent of laissez faire individualism. She also wrote novels, journalism, travel writing, polemical works on slavery and the legal and economic status of women, historical studies and commentaries on contemporary politics. As a young woman she was very close to her younger brother James, with whom she shared an early commitment to the Unitarian philosophy espoused by Joseph Priestley. From the 1830s her brother developed a reformulation of Unitarian theology, whereas Harriet was to abandon Unitarianism replacing it with a variant of Comptean positivism. In her memoirs she was very critical of those who had been her theological and intellectual mentors despite the fact that she never entirely abandoned the necessarian foundations of her world view. She toured America in 1834-6 and, witnessing slavery at first hand, became a staunch abolitionist. Plagued by painful illnesses, she found relief via mesmerism, which led to her endorsement of a book on the subject by Henry George Atkinson, to which she contributed. This made the case for mesmerism, but also rejected all religion. Her brother James wrote a critical review of this book in the Prospective Review, giving rise to a lifelong rift with Harriet. Harriet did not marry, although she had been engaged to John Hugh Worthington a Unitarian minister, who died before they could be wed in 1827. She died on 27 June 1876 at Ambleside in the Lake District.

Helen Martineau [née Bourn, later Tagart]

Helen Bourn was born in 1795 to Joseph Bourn and his wife Ellen (née Gaskell). Both parents were from dissenting families. She was educated under the guidance of Catherine Capp, who was considered an expert in the education of girls; her education included instruction in classics, classical history and religion. She was a member of the Cross Street Chapel in Manchester in the early part of the nineteenth century. Helen became engaged to a young minister, Thomas Biggins Broadbent who died in 1817 aged 24 before they were able to wed. In 1822, she married Thomas Martineau a doctor in Manchester. The following year they went to Madiera with their new born son in the hope that the mild climate would benefit Thomas, who had developed a lung complaint. Their son Philip Meadows Martineau died soon after their arrival, and Thomas was to fall ill and die during the journey home. In 1828 she married Edward Tagart, despite the disapproval of the Martineau family. Edward was the minister at the Octagon Chapel in Norwich and later of York Street Chapel London and Little Portland Street. Helen and Edward were together for 30 years and had five children. They were part of an elevated circle which included Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leigh Hunt, William Thackeray and William and Elizabeth Gaskell. Edward Tagart died in 1858 and Helen died in 1871 aged 76.


These papers have been organised into the following groups:

  • Papers of Helen Martineau [née Bourn, later Tagart]
  • Papers of James Martineau
  • Papers relating to Harriet Martineau


James Martineau

Ralph Waller, 'Martineau, James (1805-1900)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

R.K. Webb, 'Martineau, James', in M. Eliade (ed.), The Encyclopaedia of Religion (London: Macmillan,1987).

Frank Schulman, 'James Martineau', Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.

Harriet Martineau

R.K. Webb, 'Martineau, Harriet (1802-1876)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

R.K. Webb, Harriet Martineau: a radical Victorian (London: Heinemann, 1960).

Maryell Cleary and Peter Hughes, 'Harriet Martineau', in Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.

Helen Martineau [nee Bourn, later Tagart]

Ann Peart, 'Forgotten Prophets: The Lives of Unitarian Women, 1760-1904' (PhD University of Newcastle 2005)

Sophia Hankinson, 'A brother lost and found: the tale of Edward Tagart, Helen Bourn Martineau, Charles Dickens, Beatrice Potter and Transylvania', The Martineau Society Newsletter, No. 31 (Summer 2012), pp. 3-10.