The Tolpuddle Martyrs

by John Welford 4 months ago in history

A 19th century scandal that helped to create the Trades Union Movement

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were six 19th-century agricultural workers from Dorset, England, who played an important role in the story of Trade Unionism after they were sentenced to be transported to Australia but subsequently reprieved.

Unrest in 1830s Dorset

Tolpuddle is a village on the road between Dorchester and Poole, about eight miles north-east of Dorchester, that takes its name from the River Piddle (or Puddle) that runs from west to east and empties into Poole Harbour. The village has grown since the 1830s, but not greatly so; the village of the Martyrs can still be recognised as such today.

The 1830s were a time of great hardship in rural England. There was economic depression and harvests had been poor for several years. In times gone by, agricultural workers in counties like Dorset had been able to weather the storm by grazing a few animals on common land or growing vegetables on plots of land which they shared with other villagers, but the enclosure of land to form large estates owned by wealthy landlords had removed that safety net. All they had to live on was the meagre wage they were paid, and from which they had to pay rents for their cottages to the same landlords.

In the 1830s it was reckoned that ten shillings a week (half a pound sterling) was what a man needed to keep his family fed and housed, but many Dorset farmers were now cutting wages to nine shillings or less. In Tolpuddle the wage was cut first to eight shillings, and then seven.

The workers’ response

The response of the farm workers was to apply to the local magistrates for “poor relief”, but they were turned down on the grounds that employers had the right to pay as little as they wanted, and employees had no choice but to accept what they were given.

Six local men decided to form a workers’ union to campaign for better wages, rather than see their families starve. The six were George Loveless and his younger brother James, Thomas Standfield, his son John, James Brine and James Hammett. The Lovelesses and Standfields were related by marriage. George and James were both Methodist lay preachers who used the pulpit as a campaigning platform to get the local community on their side.

The union they founded was a “Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers”, and its aims were entirely peaceful. However, agricultural unrest had not always been that way, and the early 1830s had seen a wave of violent protests sweep across southern England with actions that were reminiscent of the Luddite riots that had afflicted industrial towns in the North and Midlands twenty years previously. Agricultural machinery was destroyed and hayricks set alight, all in the name of the fictitious “Captain Swing”.

The wage cuts mentioned above were partly in response to the Swing riots, the thinking being partly to punish the workers as a class but also in the belief that hungry people would be docile and unlikely to cause trouble.

The Tolpuddle union was therefore seen as a threat that had to be suppressed because, in the eyes of the landlords, it could easily turn to violence if it was not nipped in the bud.

Arrest and conviction

The move to arrest the ringleaders was taken by James Frampton, the local squire. Now in his sixties, Frampton had witnessed the French Revolution in his youth and was determined not to see it repeated in England. To him, trade unionism was the thin end of a very dangerous wedge, but forming a union had not been illegal since 1824, when the Combination Acts had been repealed.

The only option available to Squire Frampton was to invoke a law that actually applied to sailors in the Royal Navy and was designed to prevent mutinies. This made illegal the taking of secret oaths, which it was maintained had been done by the Tolpuddle unionists when recruiting new members. One of the recruits, Edward Legg, had betrayed the leaders and was willing to give evidence in court that such oaths had been sworn.

The six men were arrested on 24th February 1834 and taken in chains to Dorchester, where they were tried the following month. The jury at their trial was packed with their opponents, including Squire Frampton and his son and half-brother.

The six men were sentenced to transportation to Australia for seven years. Five of the men sailed in a convict ship to New South Wales soon after being sentenced, but George Loveless was too ill to sail immediately and was taken to Van Diemens Land (which is now Tasmania) in May.

A national response

News of the trial and sentence spread rapidly and caused widespread consternation among farm workers across southern England, where similar unions had been formed. Not unnaturally, they feared being given the same treatment for doing exactly what the Tolpuddle men had done. Protests were organised and a massive peaceful demonstration, involving 25,000 marchers, was held in London soon afterwards.

The government, which had backed the Dorset magistrates, had to back down for fear of the demonstrations getting out of hand, and the six Tolpuddle men were eventually given a full pardon. However, it was not until 1837 that the “Martyrs” came back to England.

The later lives of the Martyrs

Fortunately, they all survived the ordeal of being transported, with all the dangers that were involved in the voyage and the conditions they encountered as convict labourers. However, they did not return to their old lives, although James Hammett spent most of the rest of his life in Tolpuddle, working as a builder’s labourer. He had always been the outsider of the group and it is possible that he had not actually been at the meeting witnessed by Edward Legg but had accepted arrest to protect his brother John, whose wife was about to give birth.

The other five continued to be active in the workers’ movement, including during the early years of Chartism, which campaigned for parliamentary reform. They all wrote about their experiences in Australia, particularly George Loveless who had a gift for eloquent writing as well as speaking.

The London Dorchester Committee, which had been formed to campaign for the Martyrs’ pardon and return, raised funds that allowed the men to take leases on farms in Essex, which they used as the base for their continuing political activity. While in Essex, James Brine married Thomas Standfield’s daughter, thus uniting the five men as an extended family. The Committee had also done what they could to support the families of the Martyrs during the latters’ time in Australia.

However, the opposition of local landowners in Essex persuaded the men to take another long journey, this time in somewhat greater comfort. All the families emigrated to Canada at various times during the 1840s, settling in Ontario and, except for James Loveless, buying farms of their own. The Lovelesses were active in Methodism in the Siloam area. More children were born, and they lived contented lives, all five Martyrs reaching old age. The last to die was James Brine in 1902, at the age of 90.

It would appear that, once in Canada, they sought to leave their old lives behind them, even to the extent that their Canada-born children were told nothing about the events of the 1830s.

However, England had no intention of forgetting the Martyrs, who became symbols of the working-class movement. Trade unionism in Great Britain is seen as having started at Tolpuddle, and the name is invoked on banners and in union histories to this day. Every July trade unionists from Britain and abroad gather at Tolpuddle for an annual festival and rally.

In 1934, to mark the centenary of the Martyrs’ trial, the Trades Union Congress built six cottages for the use of retired agricultural workers, and a shelter was erected at the site on the village green where the Martyrs are reputed to have held some of their meetings under a sycamore tree. The tree is still there, having started life in the 1680s, although it has since lost many of its branches. The cottages now house the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, which tells the full story of the Martyrs and the early history of trade unionism.

Visitors can also see the Old Crown Court in Dorchester where the Martyrs were tried, although the cells and stocks in which they were held are only viewable as part of a guided tour.

The Martyrs' Tree, Tolpuddle

John Welford
John Welford
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John Welford

I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.

I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".

See all posts by John Welford