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.

Although others in the family also had broad scientific and artistic interests, 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 Peter Martineau and James Montgomrey, cousin Thomas Field Gibson and nephew Charles Edward Flower 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, Samuel Carter, Edwin Wilkins Field and Professor Edmund Ronalds entered the professions of medicine, law and academia. Several became pioneer settlers in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and a few enjoyed the life of an "English gentleman".

Women in the family were every bit as adventurous and capable as their brothers, encouraged by their strong and accomplished mother. Sir Francis' sister Emily Ronalds was an early socialist 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.

The close-knit family had other things in common. Almost all were of the Unitarian faith, even though it was illegal until 1813. 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 several 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). 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; and the Ronalds Papers at UCL. Family members receive mention in contemporaneous memoirs of various colleagues and in the diaries of Henry Crabb Robinson, William Godwin and others.