The fate of six farm laborers in Dorset and the huge protest and movement that their brutal transportation to Australia stirred are touchstones to the British labor movement. The Tolpuddle Martyrs are widely celebrated in England as well as in the former penal colony where they were sent and in far off Canada. Most Americans have never heard of them. We aim to rectify that.
In 1833 George Loveless, a Methodist lay preacher, and a respected leader among the farm laborers around the village of Tolpuddle in southern England, called a few of his mates together. Legend has it that six of them met under a sycamore tree. Others say that they squeezed into the tiny hovel of Thomas Standfield. They had serious business to attend to.
Landlords in the area were putting the arm on their laborers and tenants. Unlike areas closer to London or the grimy cities of the rapidly industrializing north, farmers in Dorset did not have to keep up wages to compete with the lure of the cities and factory jobs. In addition modest changes to age old farming practices were reducing the number of laborer needed on the farms and estates. Conditions were ripe for wage cutting.
Local wages had been steady at 10 schillings a week—hardly a fortune, but enough to barely fed and cloth a family. Landowners had already cut that to 7 and had announced a second cut to 6 was imminent. No reductions in the rent demanded for their cottages were proposed.
Earlier, in 1830, farm workers had responded to such cuts and the new farm equipment that made them possible with the Swing Rebellion—a Luddite like uprising in which laborers rioted, attacking and burning equipment like threshing machines and menacing landlords. Frightened farmers suspended their cuts, or sometimes even gave wage boosts, but waited for authorities to act.
And act they did. Militia and Army units swept the county rounding up hundreds of suspects. At trial several were sentenced to hang, although in the end only a handful were swung in public as an object lesson, the rest were torn from their families and transported to Australia. Conditions returned to what they were before the protests—or worse.
Loveless and his friends knew that violence and disorganized riot was not the answer. They had to find new ways of organizing a protest. They had some reasons for hope. The Combination Acts, passed in 1799 at the height of panic about the possible spread of revolution from France to the English working and agrarian classes and which had outlawed combinations to obtain better wages and working conditions, had been repealed in 1824 and’25. A modest trade union movement was developing, not without severe opposition, in among skilled tradesmen in cities and in the mines.
More over the Reform Act, passed earlier in 1832, had finally extended the franchise some without yet granting universal male suffrage. It was not enough by half, but the Dorset men felt that it might foretell a more liberal age.
Despite these reasons for optimism, the fate of the Swing Rebellion left them no illusions about the dangers of their undertaking. So that when they agreed to form the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers they did so swearing an oath of secrecy.
Local landlords began to hear certain rumors. As planting season neared men were refusing to work for less than the old 10 schillings standard.
One landlord, James Frampton, petitioned to Lord Melbourne, the Whig Home Minister for relief. It was fast in coming. On February 24, 1834 Loveless and the other men were arrested as they left their homes. Their families would not see them for a long time.
In no time at all they were hauled before an unsympathetic Judge Baron John Williams. Loveless, Stanfield, James Brine, James Hammett, and James Loveless, George’s brother were charged under an obscure law also dating to the late 18th Century which made the swearing of secret oaths to each other illegal. On March 18, subsequently celebrated as Tolpuddle Martyrs Day, they were found guilty and sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australian—a sentence few men ever returned from.
Despite rising protests from working people across England, all of the men were quickly bundled off to the ships that carried them away.
From his cell before being shipped out George Loveless had scribbled a note on a scrap of paper that was soon printed all over England:
God is our guide! from field, from wave,
From plough, from anvil, and from loom;
We come, our country’s rights to save,
And speak a tyrant faction’s doom:
We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!
Inspired by those words an unprecedented protest arose across the country. More than 80,000 signed petitions to Lord Melbourne himself in April. And in London more than 25 thousand assembled for the largest public demonstration of its kind ever held in protest to a government action. In addition to the labor movement, the reform press took up the protest as did the liberal wing of Melbourne’s own Whig party.
In 1836 by then Prime minister Melbourne’s new Home Secretary Lord John Russell commuted the sentences of all but Hammett who had a previous minor conviction. Four of the men arrived back in England at Plymouth. A plaque next to the Mayflower Steps commemorates their return.
Hammett was released a year later and returned to Tolpuddle, where he lived a long life in poverty and want. He died in the Dorchester workhouse in 1891.
The other men realized they could not support their families back home where no landlord would hire them. They moved together for a time to Essex and then with the help of funds subscribed for their relief, immigrated together to London, Ontario, Canada. They were greeted in their new home as heroes and are still commemorated there today with a monument and an affordable housing co-op / trade union complex named after them.
Back home the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum preserves their story and their deep connection to the trade union movement. A monument was erected to them in 1934 on the centennial of their sentence and a new statue installed before the museum in 2001.
There are also modest monuments in Australia.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival is held annually in Tolpuddle, usually in the third week of July, organized by the National Union of Agricultural Workers (recently amalgamated with the Transport and General Workers Union) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) featuring a parade of banners from many trade unions, a memorial service, speeches and music. Recent festivals have featured speakers such as Tony Benn and musicians such as Billy Bragg.
Forgetting for a moment that as a Methodist, Loveless was likely a teetotaler, I propose all good working men and women raise a toast today to the lads from Tolpuddle.