At the beginning of the 19th century, public regard for the appropriate treatment of animals was virtually non-existent and most people of the time only though of animals as part of the food chain, as a means of transport or for the provision of sport. In those days, animals received no protection from the law and horses in particular were often overworked to the point of death and were kept in conditions of extreme filth and deprivation. There were however a growing number of people who were becoming increasingly aware of society’s lack of compassion for animals.
One such person was Colonel Richard Martin, a Member of Parliament from Ballinahinch, in Ireland. Popularly referred to as "Humanity Dick", he introduced the first Parliamentary Bill aimed at preventing animal cruelty in 1822. The bill was voted through and for the first time, the ill treatment of animals became a criminal offence in Great Britain. Two years later, Colonel Martin went on to become one of the co-founders of the first ever society devoted to the welfare of animals anywhere in the world. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as it was originally know, initially concentrated on gaining the sympathy of the public at large.
At first most of the work was concentrated in London and members investigated cases of ill treatment and promoted good animal welfare methods wherever necessary. The Society quickly won the respect of the people and enjoyed early success. The first records disclosed by the SPCA shows that there were regular prosecutions for animal mistreatment and in 1832, a total of 181 offenders were convicted. In fact the work of the Society became so celebrated that in 1840, Queen Victoria honored the SPCA by allowing it to bear the title of ‘Royal’ and the RSPCA was born.
This mark of Royal approval was hugely important to the Society. They were able to attract increasing levels of funding from benefactors of all classes and interest in animal welfare became fashionable in Victorian London. Full time salaried inspectors were appointed to monitor slaughter houses and livestock markets in the City. These inspectors also investigated and prosecuted animal cruelty cases whenever they came across them and there were soon campaigns for inspectors to be appointed in cities outside of the capital. Thanks to the money received from public donation and local pledges; it was possible to employ the necessary staff. This led to the establishment of the first regional branches of the RSPCA.
The Society has continued to work in the interests of animal welfare throughout England and Wales and now maintains almost 200 regional branches. It operates four animal hospitals, three specialist wildlife centres, 15 animal centres and seven clinics throughout England and Wales. It employs 323 Inspectors and 146 Animal Collection Officers in England and Wales. In 2003 it investigated over 100,000 cruelty cases resulting in the conviction over 1,800 offenders. Local branches run welfare and treatment centres and will provide free or discounted veterinary treatment and re-homes needy animals to suitable environments. It should be remembered that the RSPCA is financed purely from donations; The Society is a registered charity and receives no government funding.