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Kate Middleton's ties to radical Norwich family

PUBLISHED: 14:29 19 November 2010

Harriett Martineau.


Although she is rightly celebrated in many parts of the world as one of the founding theorists of modern thought and freedom, a woman from Norwich has been largely forgotten in the city itself.


For: Tracey Gray

Harriett Martineau. Although she is rightly celebrated in many parts of the world as one of the founding theorists of modern thought and freedom, a woman from Norwich has been largely forgotten in the city itself. For: Tracey Gray

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Norwich Art Centre’s STUART HOBDAY delves into the Norwich family links of the latest royal bride-to-be.

Kate Middleton’s family heritage contains significant Norfolk links. She is a direct descendant of an Elisabeth Middleton of Hethersett from the 18th century, about whom little is known.

But Kate is also a direct descendant of the famous Martineau family of Norwich.

Her great, great, grandmother was Elisabeth Martineau who was born in Norwich in 1794.

She was the older sister of Harriet and James Martineau who were to become significant 19th century figures.

Their father was Thomas Martineau, a notable textiles manufacturer and his brother was Philip Meadows Martineau.

He was the notable surgeon who drove the foundation of the Norfolk and Norwich Music Festival as a fundraising mechanism for the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.

There is some irony in this lineage in that the Martineaus were from French Hugeonot immigrant stock and were part of a dissenting, free-thinking element in Norwich between 1780 and 1850.

They were predominantly Unitarians who were based around the Octagon Chapel in Colegate.

In the 19th century James Martineau became an inflluential Unitarian thinker providing much challenge to the established church.

Harriet Martineau went further and provides the most interesting irony in being part of this direct link to the future Queen of England.

Harriet was a repressed child in Norwich who became deaf in her teens.

When her father died she had to fend for herself and started writing.

She wrote about economics and equality in the 1830s and moved to London to be feted by politicians and the public as an influential and radical voice.

She visited America and became outspoken against slavery, influencing the abolitionist cause in the US.

She wrote radical polemics arguing for the primacy of scientific evidence to be used for a better society, which influenced Charles Darwin and also helped to found the study of sociology.

She became the first female journalist in the world and wrote more than 2000 leader articles for the Daily News, particularly using her American contacts.

She is an underestimated radical figure in British history having spent her life campaigning and writing about many modern aspects of life that have come to be the norm such as women’s rights and racial equality.

Her avowed atheism, which she announced in the 1850s, ensured the establishment worked to curb her influence and fame.

Harriet Martineau was an inspiring, indomitable spirit, arising from a free-thinking Norwich dissenting tradition. She was notorious for smoking cigars in polite society.

One suspects that Kate Middleton could do worse than look back at this ancestor of hers and take on some of her determination and courage in the face of the world’s media glare that is about to descend on her, though it’s possible that she will not be able to be as free thinking and outspoken as her ancestors have been.

Stuart Hobday is Director of Norwich Arts Centre and has been researching the Martineau Family of Norwich for several years.

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