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Primatt, Humphrylocked

(bap. 1735, d. 1776/7)
  • Richard D. Ryder

Primatt, Humphry (bap. 1735, d. 1776/7), Church of England clergyman and writer on animal welfare, was born in London and was baptized on 24 April 1735 at St Andrew's, Holborn, the second son of the Revd William Primatt (bap. 1702, d. 1770), rector of West Walton, Norfolk, and his wife, Elizabeth. Little is known of Primatt's life. He became a pensioner at Clare College, Cambridge, on 11 July 1752, matriculating in Michaelmas the same year, graduating BA in 1757, and proceeding MA in 1764. He was vicar of Higham in Suffolk and of Swardeston in Norfolk from 1766 to 1774, and rector of Brampton, Norfolk, from 1771. On 2 November 1769, at St Katharine Cree, Leadenhall Street, London, he married Sarah Gullifer, daughter of John Wood. On his father's death in 1770 he inherited half of his estate, the remainder passing to his elder brother, William. Primatt was a signatory of the (unsuccessful) Feathers tavern petition seeking to end the requirement that those who sought to matriculate at Oxford, graduate at Cambridge, or hold a benefice in the Church of England should subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles. He resigned his living in 1774 and, being then described by an anonymous contemporary source as 'a man of means', he lived 'in some style' at Kingston upon Thames 'for the honour of Aberdeen' (Venn, Alum. Cant.). (Marischal College in Aberdeen, had appointed him DD on 3 September 1773.)

Primatt's only known work is A Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals, first published in 1776. The book was one of the first ever devoted entirely to an attack upon cruelty to animals. The last two-thirds consist of quotations from scripture to support his case. In the earlier pages, however, Primatt expresses himself with clarity, arguing that 'pain is pain, whether it be inflicted on man or on beast; and the creature that suffers it, whether man or beast, being sensible of the misery of it while it lasts, suffers evil' (Duty of Mercy, 7–8). Primatt points out that if animals lack the hope of an afterlife their earthly miseries are made worse. He draws the parallel between what were later called racism and speciesism: the white man 'can have no right, by virtue of his colour, to enslave and tyrannise over a black man' (ibid., 11), so, similarly, 'the difference of shape between a man and a brute, cannot give to a man any right to abuse and torment a brute' (ibid., 15). Primatt chides mankind for its arrogance and injustice towards animals. 'A brute is an animal no less sensible of pain than a man. He has similar nerves and organs of sensation' (ibid., 13). Physical differences are morally irrelevant:

whether we walk upon two legs or four; whether our heads are prone or erect; whether we are naked or covered in hair; whether we have tails or no tails, horns or no horns, long ears or round ears; or whether we bray like an ass, speak like a man, whistle like a bird, or are mute as a fish—nature never intended these distinctions as foundations for right of tyranny and oppression.

ibid., 18

The book's arguments also circulated in a summary appended to a sermon by a Dorset clergyman, John Toogood, which reached its third edition in 1790, and a fourth edition, published in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1802. A new edition of Primatt's book, edited by Arthur Broome, appeared in 1822. Further editions appeared in 1831, 1834, and 1992. The book was an inspiration to Broome who helped Richard Martin, William Wilberforce, and others to found in 1824 the society that was to become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). It was also cited by Henry Salt, the intellectual leader of the animal rights movement in the late nineteenth century.

Primatt's emphasis upon the moral importance of pain has stood the test of time and it anticipated by several years Jeremy Bentham's much-quoted comment about the moral status of animals: 'The question is not can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?' (Ryder, Animal Revolution, rev. edn, 71).

Primatt died in late 1776 or early 1777; his will, proved on 29 March 1777, left most of his estate to his wife, Sarah. No children are mentioned, although it refers to his relatives named Primatt, Kennedy, Maud, and Blackall, and to relatives of his wife, who were then living around Boston, Massachusetts. He left his books in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew to Marischal College, Aberdeen. His widow remarried on 24 July 1780.


  • H. Primatt, The duty of mercy and the sin of cruelty to brute animals, ed. R. D. Ryder (1992) [incl. introduction by R. D. Ryder, 11–13]
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1029, sig. 127
  • H. Primatt, A dissertation on the duty of mercy and sin of cruelty to brute animals (1776)
  • P. J. Anderson and J. F. K. Johnstone, eds., Fasti academiae Mariscallanae Aberdonensis: selections from the records of the Marischal College and University, MDXCIII–MDCCCLX, 3 vols., New Spalding Club, 4, 18–19 (1889–98), vol.1, p. 454; vol. 2, p. 85
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
J. Venn & J. A. Venn, , 2 pts in 10 vols. (1922–54); repr. in 2 vols. (1974–8)