The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is used by the TUC to popularise basic trade unionism. Every summer there is a festival in Tolpuddle to commemorate the group of Dorset agricultural labourers who in 1834 were prosecuted and transported to Australia for trying to organise a union.
But the story of the “Tolpuddle Martyrs” is about much more than the need for workers to join a union for the improvement of wages and conditions. It is much more instructive and inspiring than that.
Socialists should tell and re-tell the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. We do that here, using the words of one of the men, George Loveless — a pamphlet he wrote called The Victims of Whiggery — and other documents and reports of the time.
The organiser of the Tolpuddle labourers, George Loveless, was a local Methodist preacher. His “Dissenting” Protestant denomination (i.e. outside the established Church of England) was considered, according to Loveless, “as the sin of witchcraft”. Loveless’s ideas about equality and justice were often seen through the prism of his religion, and he often clashed with the CofE clergy.
God is our guide! No swords we draw.
We kindle not war’s battle fires:
By reason, union, justice, law,
We claim the birthright of our sires:
We raise the watchword Liberty:
We will, we will, we will be free!
Loveless saw society as a class system, which was designed to keep waged workers down.
Thus the workers must both unite as a class and resist.
Loveless: “Labour is the poor man’s property, from which all protection is withheld. Has not the working man as much right to preserve and protect his labour as the rich man has his capital?… Let the working classes of Britain, seeing the necessity of acting upon such a principle, remembering that union is power, listen to nothing that might be presented before them to draw their attention from the subject, alike despising and conquering party disputes and personal bickerings, and they will accomplish their own salvation, and that of the world.
“Arise, men of Britain and take your stand! Rally round the standard of Liberty, or forever lay prostrate under the iron hand of your land and money-mongering taskmasters!”
In October 1833 Loveless and some other men in Tolpuddle established a “Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers”. The union was formed after the workers’ wages had been successively cut by the big farmers, their employers.
Loveless: [At the beginning of 1833] “We learnt that in almost every place around us, the masters were given their men… ten shillings a week. We expected [according to prior agreement with the masters] to be entitled to as much, but no, nine shillings must be our portion.
“After some months we were reduced to eight shillings a week… [We then held a meeting in front of the magistrates with our employers] There we were told that we must work for what our employers thought fit to give us, as there was no law to compel masters to give any fixed sum of money to their servants.
“From this time we were reduced to seven shillings a week and shortly our employers told us they must lower us to six shillings a week. The labouring men consulted together what had better be done, as they knew it was impossible to live honest on such scanty means.
“I had seen at different times accounts of trade societies; I told them of this, and they willingly consented to form a friendly society among the labourers, having sufficiently learned that it would be vain to seek redress either of employers, magistrates or parsons.
“Shortly after two delegates from a trade society paid us a visit.”
JOINING THE UNION
Initiation ceremonies were common in the early trade unions, especially for a time in the 18th century and early 19th century when they were illegal. The Tolpuddle union had such a ceremony. Beyond the trade unions, oath-taking in all kinds of different societies and clubs was popular.
Trade unions needed then (and still do sometimes) to keep secrets from the bosses. The local magistrates paid informers to find out the business of the union. The unions wanted to be sure of their members’ loyalty. It was for “oath swearing” that the Tolpuddle unionists were prosecuted.
The union had the potential to unite all the men in the local area in solidarity against the bosses. The union had a plan: to refuse to accept new engagements for less than ten shillings a week. If the union could stick to this plan all the labourers and their families in the area would be better off.
There was a great deal of unrest in southern England in 1830-31. A series of “riots” led by a mythical Captain Swing took place and new farm machinery, ricks and threshing machines were broken up. But the focus of the labourers’ demands were usually for a wage increase.
A LEGAL FIT-UP
Six of the Tolpuddle union men were arrested and charged with administering illegal oaths. The local magistrates were in direct communication with the Prime Minister of the time, Lord Melbourne. The government as well as the local ruling class wanted to check the growth of trade unionism.
Because trade unions were not in themselves unlawful, the authorities found a different, and obscure, law under which to charge the men — an illegal oath law. The men were tried in Dorchester on 17 March 1984 and sentenced to seven years transportation.
George Loveless: “Nothing much occurred [until 21 February 1834] when placards were posted up at the most conspicuous places, purporting to be cautions from the magistrates, threatening to punish with seven years transportation any man who should join the union.
This was the first I heard of any law being in existence to forbid such societies…”
“February the 24th, at daybreak, I arose to go to my usual labour, and had just left my house, when Mr James Brine, constable of the parish, met me and said, ‘I have a warrant for you from the magistrates…’
“Accordingly, I and my companions [five other members of the union] walked in company with the constable to Dorchester, about seven miles distant, and was taken into the house of a Mr Wollaston, magistrate, who, with his half-brother, James Frampton [another Justice of the Peace], and Edward Legg [informant], were ready to receive us… Legg was called upon to swear to us, and we were instantly sent to prison.
“As soon as we got within the prison doors, our clothes were stripped and searched… After our heads were shorn, we were locked up together in a room, where we remained, day and night, until the following Saturday, when we were called before a bench of magistrates in another part of the prison… We were then fully committed to take our trial at the next assizes…
“The chaplain of the prison paid us a visit, to pour a volley of instructions into our ears; but as it was mixed up in the cup of abuse, it did not exactly relish with me.
After upbraiding and taunting us with being discontented and idle and wishing to ruin our masters, he proceeded to tell us that we were better off than our masters…
“I began to assure him our object was not to ruin our masters… and as to their being worse off than ourselves, I could not believe it, while I saw them keep such a number of horses for no other purpose than to chase the hare and fox…
[I told him] “gentlemen wearing the clerical livery might do with a little less salary, and that would assist [with savings for the owners].
“He said, ‘I hope the Court will favour you, but I think they will not; for I believe they mean to make an example of you.”
The Tolpuddle men — John Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, his brother John Loveless, Thomas Standfield and his son John Standfield — were tried in March 1834, found guilty and transported for seven years. The evidence was ludicrous. The purpose of the trial was to bash the trade unions.
Hansard: “The case was entirely supported by the evidence of accomplices. The evidence was given in a very loose and indistinct manner, and varied very materially from the depositions of the same witnesses taken before the committing magistrates.
“On the principal point, the taking of an oath, these witnesses said they could not recollect what was said. The Counsel for the Prosecution in vain endeavoured to elicit such answers as would have supported the indictment; and such answers as were drawn from them, with great difficulty were suggested to them in the form of leading questions, by the Judge reading from the depositions.”
Morning Post 29 March 1834: “The Dorchester conspirators were, we admit, as little dangerous as it is possible for conspirators to be. The Trade Unions are, we have no doubt, the most dangerous institutions that were ever permitted to take root, under the shelter of the law, in any country.”
TRANSPORTED TO AUSTRALIA
Conditions on the ships to Australia were appalling. Once in the colony convicts were worked hard as indentured labourers for the well-to-do colonists. Freed convicts had no means for returning from the colony after their sentence.
John Standfield: “On 11 April we weighed anchor [from Portsmouth] and bore away for New South Wales… confined down with a number of the most degraded and wretched criminals, each man having to contend with his fellow or be trodden under foot. The rations were of the worst quality, and very deficient in quantity… the crowded state of the vessel, rendering it impossible for the prisoners to lie at full length to sleep, the noxious state of the atmosphere, and the badness and saltness of the provisions, induced disease and suffering which it is impossible to describe…”
George Loveless was sent to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania): “When landed they are sent to different parts of the country, not sold to masters as many suppose, but I think let out on loan, as government can call them in at any time. However government has the first choice of the best workmen, government officers next, their friends next, and the residue are distributed generally…
“Some get kind masters, who consider that prisoners are men… But the greater part are so situated that, bad as government usage is, they are far worse off; treated like dogs, worked from the dawn of the morning till the close of the day, often half naked and all but starved.”
The families of the transported men were refused parish relief (the meagre welfare system of the time, few shillings of charity, given out on the whim of the local magistrates).
They also denied relief to any person who had been a member of the Tolpuddle union.
James Frampton to Viscount Howick, Under Secretary of State, 3 May 1834:
“It is perfectly true that we, as Justices, directed the overseer not to allow any parochial relief to any persons whose names appeared in the book which was proved on the trial of the six men to contain a list of those who had taken the illegal oath and had joined the union, and we did this.. [because] we considered that no person could be considered entitled to receive parochial relief who could afford to pay a shilling on entering and a penny a week afterwards to the support of the union… and as none of these persons had ever… acknowledged their error or expressed any sorrow at having joined the unions, we have seen no occasion for altering our opinions…. The Justices have particularly recommended to the farmers… that every encouragement should be given to those labourers who did not join the union by increasing their wages, and placing them in all the most profitable work, so that they may feel the advantage of their good conduct.”
However trade unionists organised to collect financial support for the families — they formed a London Dorchester Committee — and came to their aid.
PRESSURE ON THE ESTABLISHMENT
As a result of the labour movement campaign a major parliamentary debate took place focussing on the severity of the sentences and the questionable legality of the prosecution.
And pressure to indict the King’s brother for administering secret oaths as the Grand Master of the Orange Order forced the King to grant a free pardon to the men in 1836.
However the men only returned to England in 1838 because they were not officially informed of their pardons. Money was raised to lease two farms for them in Essex.
The Radical 3 April 1836: “The indictment against his Royal illustrious Highness the Duke of Cumberland for being at the head of an illegal society was all but prepared. And would have been sent to the next Grand Inquest of Middlesex, had not Ministers in a quiet way interfered…
“Ministers all bewigged as they are, were not radical enough to avoid a shudder at the thought of even the possibility of indicting a Prince of the blood royal, and as to transporting his Royal Highness, only imagine a Whig so much as thinking of such a thing.
As it was an awkward affair, the labourers were pardoned to save the Prince.”
George Loveless became active in the Chartists’ campaign for working class political rights. In the 1840s five out of six of the men emigrated to Canada.
“Transportation has not had the intended effect on me, but, after all, I am returned from my bondage with my views and principles strengthened. It is indelibly fixed in my mind that labour is ill-rewarded in consequence of a few tyrannising over the millions; and that through their oppression thousands are now working in chains on the roads, abused by the overseers, sentenced by the comitants, and punished by the flagellator… Is this the plan to reform men? I say no. If they were bad before, they are tenfold the children of hell now… The groans and cries of the labourers ere long will bring down vengeance on the heads of those who have been and are still the authors of so much misery…
“Let the producers of the wealth firmly and peaceably unite their energies and what can withstand them?”
• Tolpuddle — An historical account through the eyes of George Loveless, published by the TUC. www.tuc.org.uk