Sir Francis Ronalds and his Family

A Unitarian Family in 19th-Century London

Sir Francis Ronalds' lithograph of the Neolithic "Fairy Stone" near Carnac, Brittany (1834) made using his perspective drawing instrument

Sir Francis' lithograph of a Neolithic Dolmen at Carnac (1834)

Sir Francis' lithograph of part of a Neolithic Enclosure at Carnac (1834)

Sir Francis' lithograph of Tumulus St Michel at Carnac (1834)

Sir Francis' lithograph of standing stones near Sainte-Barbe in Brittany (1834)

Inventor Sir Francis Ronalds was not the only noteworthy member of his accomplished family. His brother Alfred shared similar talents and his legacy lives on in his classic book The Fly-Fisher's Entomology.

Others in the family also demonstrated scientific and artistic achievements, but their careers were in the commercial arena. Their businesses were large and geographically dispersed and gave them considerable wealth and local prominence in the industrial revolution.

Sir Francis' brother Edmund and maternal cousins like George Field were merchants, managing a fleet of ships that brought wholesale goods from the north of England and abroad for sale in the capital. Brothers-in-law James Montgomrey Snr and Peter Martineau, cousin Thomas Field Gibson, and nephews Dr Edmund Ronalds, Charles Edward Flower and William Frank Morgan were industrialists. Employing many people, they manufactured products from these raw materials. The family was awarded several patents for processes that improved the efficiency of their operations.

Sir Francis' uncle Hugh Ronalds and his paternal cousins were esteemed nurserymen who again traded throughout Britain and internationally and published the results of their research. Still other family members including Dr Henry Ronalds, Ronald Montgomrey, Dr Hugh Ronalds, Dr Francis Ronalds, Samuel Carter and John Corrie Carter entered the professions of medicine and law. Several became pioneer settlers in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and a few enjoyed the life of an "English gentleman".

Women in Sir Francis' and Alfred's family were every bit as adventurous and capable as their brothers, encouraged by their strong and accomplished mother. Their sister Emily Ronalds was an early socialist, abolitionist and educationist and travelled widely. Another sister Mary Anne Martineau pronounced early in her marriage that "women's understandings would carry[?] the world better than men's", and apparently their brother Edmund "was no sort of business man himself but nothing ever went wrong when he took… [his wife Eliza's] advice". Their cousin Betsey Ronalds was a published botanical illustrator and their niece Maria Shanklin established a business selling prize-winning artificial flies for fishing.

The close-knit family had other things in common. Almost all were of the Unitarian faith, even though it was illegal until 1813. They strove not just for personal success but to also bring benefit for society. Taking great interest in politics and believing in religious tolerance, abolition of slavery, social reform and free trade, they strongly supported the Whigs and Radicals. They also devoted considerable time and money to philanthropic activities including education and healthcare for those in need. Many of their novel schemes had considerable longevity and some still continue today.

Further Information

Descriptions of the family's commercial world, their community interests and home life are given in Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph (2016) and Alfred Ronalds: Angler, Artisan and Australian Pioneer (2022). There are significant collections of personal correspondence and manuscript journals in the Ronalds Family Papers - Harris Family Fonds at Western Archives; the Ronalds Archive at IET; the Ronalds Papers at UCL; the Ronalds Letters in the Alexander Turnbull Library; and elsewhere. Family members receive mention in contemporaneous memoirs of various colleagues and in the diaries and correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, William Godwin, Harriet Martineau, Fanny Wright, Robert Owen, and others.