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The Tolpuddle Martyrs

The life of an agricultural labourer in early nineteenth century Britain was a hard one. The Enclosure Acts, decreasing wages, rising unemployment, mechanisation and the poor harvests of 1828 and 1829 had led to widespread poverty and growing discontent amongst rural labourers.

In 1830 the Swing Riots broke out across southern and eastern England with protesters demanding higher wages and the destruction of the threshing machines which threatened their livelihoods.

Mindful of the recent French Revolution, the authorities dealt harshly with the protesters.

The Swing Riots were part of the political and social discontent which swept Britain during the 1830’s. There was a move amongst the working classes to seek better conditions and wages, some of whom organised themselves into trade unions.

The landowning classes were alarmed by this, seeing an organised workforce as a threat to their power, wealth and long established authority.

On the 19 March 1834 six agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle in Dorset were sentenced to seven year’s transportation. George Loveless, James Loveless, Thomas Stanfield, John Stanfield, Joseph Brine and James Hammett had been convicted of administering secret oaths.

However the real reason was because they had formed a trade union.

‘We were uniting together to save ourselves, our wives and families from starvation.’ George Loveless, at his trial, 1834

At the beginning of the 1830’s the farm workers of Tolpuddle had met with their employers to ask for an increase in wages. They had agreed to pay them at the same rate as the other labourers in the district, which was ten shillings a week. However this promise was reneged on and they were paid only nine shillings a week which then dropped to eight shillings.

The labourers sought the advice of a neighbouring magistrate William Morden Pitt who advised them to send representatives to the County Hall in Dorchester and meet with the chief magistrate.

George Loveless, a ploughman and Methodist lay preacher, was one of the representatives. The chief magistrate was the local landowner from Moreton Hall, James Frampton. He told them that they must work for whatever their employers thought fit to give them. Furthermore, the parish vicar Rev Thomas Warren who had witnessed the agreement between the labourers and their employers denied all knowledge of it.

Shortly after this the men’s wages were reduced to seven shillings a week, with further reductions expected. These were starvation wages.

The labourers of Tolpuddle gathered together on the village green under a sycamore tree where George Loveless told them that the only way to get a fair wage of ten shillings a week was to unite together.

At the end of October 1833 two delegates arrived from London to help found the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers.

It cost one shilling to join and a penny a week thereafter. Many of the meetings were held at the house of Thomas Standfield.

As was common to many trade unions of the time, there was an initiation ceremony for new members where they swore an oath of allegiance to the union. They also had to promise to support their demands for fair wages. A painting of a skeleton was intended to remind them of their own mortality and to instil in them the need for secrecy and loyalty.

‘When we first came into office…the union of trades…were pointed out to me by Sir Robert Peel…as the most formidable difficulty and danger with which we had to contend, and it struck me as well as the rest of His Majesty’s Servants in the same light’. Lord Melbourne in a private letter, 1831

The local landowners had no sympathy for the grievances of the Tolpuddle farm workers and wanted to see their union broken.

The magistrate James Frampton wrote to the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne on the 30 January 1834 complaining that agricultural labourers were forming ‘combinations of a dangerous and alarming kind’ to which they were ‘bound by oaths administered clandestinely’.

Frampton would attempt to find out who the parties involved were by employing ‘trusty persons’ to act as spies and informants. Frampton sought Lord Melbourne’s advice on what legal grounds the men involved could be prosecuted.

In 1799 and 1800 William Pitt’s Government had passed the Combination Acts which made it illegal for ‘combinations’ of workers to organise themselves into trade unions and collectively bargain for better pay and working conditions. In 1824 these Acts were repealed. An amendment in 1825 placed severe restrictions on the activities of the unions but it did not make them illegal.

Lord Melbourne wrote back to Frampton on the 31 January and suggested that the men be prosecuted under the Seditious Meetings Act 1817 or another law concerned with ‘the administering of secret oaths’.

The Whig Government feared the growth of the trade unions movement which in 1833 had seen a large rise in members. They were particularly concerned by the move towards general trades unions which aimed to unite and organise workers from across the different trades.

Frampton and Lord Melbourne were not just trying to stop the Tolpuddle labourers but wanted to see an end to all trade unions.

‘The object of all legal punishment is not altogether with the view of operating on the offenders themselves, it is also for the sake of offering an example and warning…’Judge Baron John Williams, sentencing the Tolpuddle Martyrs, 1834.

On the 22 February 1834 a caution notice was published in Tolpuddle which stated that labourers had been deceived into joining ‘illegal societies and unions’ and made to swear secretly administered ‘unlawful oaths’. Any man found to be a member of such a union would be sentenced to transportation.

Nine magistrates signed the caution notice. These included James Frampton, his half- brother Charlton Wollaston and four clergymen of the Church of England.

Just two days later, on 24 February six leading members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers were arrested by the local constable James Brine.

They were taken to Dorchester to the house of the magistrate Charlton Wollaston. Here they were questioned by Wollaston and James Frampton.

One of Frampton’s informers, farm labourer Edward Legg, swore on oath that these were the men who had been present at a union meeting on 9 December 1833.

The six men were taken to the gaol in Dorchester to await trail.

The trial began on the 17 March. The Tolpuddle labourers were prosecuted for administering secret oaths under the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797. This Act had originally been passed to prevent further naval mutinies after those at Spithead and Nore. It carried a greater maximum penalty than the Seditious Meetings Act 1817 and the legality of the union would not be an issue.

George Loveless later referred to the proceedings as having ‘a shameful disregard of justice’. James Frampton and his son Henry were both on the Grand Jury. The Foreman was Lord Melbourne’s brother-in-law William Ponsonby, wealthy landowner and the Whig MP for Dorset.

One of the chief witnesses called to give testimony in the trial was John Lock. Lock was the son of James Frampton’s head gardener at Moreton Hall and one of Frampton’s informers.

The Radical MP Thomas Wakley alleged in Parliament that the witnesses had been placed in gaol before the trial to ensure they appeared and gave the ‘required evidence’. Wakley also maintained that the men of the Petty Jury had been deliberately selected as those mostly likely to return a guilty verdict, which they duly did after little deliberation.

George Loveless wrote a short statement for the court ‘My lord, if we had violated any law it was not done intentionally… We were uniting together to save ourselves, our wives and families from starvation.’

On the 19 March the six men were sentenced to the maximum penalty of seven years transportation. In sentencing the men the Judge Baron John Williams stated that their punishment was necessary for the ‘security of the country’ and would also serve as ‘an example and a warning’.

Lord Melbourne ensured the sentence was swiftly carried out.

The Combination Acts may have been repealed but the ruling elite wanted to send a clear message and deter any would-be trade unionists. The six farm workers from Tolpuddle had been made an example of.

‘The Whigs have had their jubilee in transporting the Dorsetshire labourers…but their outrage was largely condemned by all excepting their own parasites and yet they persevered’. George Loveless, The Victims of Whiggery, 1837

After the trial, James Frampton wrote to Lord Melbourne saying that the outcome had brought the ‘greatest satisfaction to all the higher classes’.

Frampton and the other magistrates refused to provide poor relief to the families of the six Tolpuddle labourers or any person who had joined their union. They also recommended to the farmers that those men who had not joined the union should be rewarded for their ‘good conduct’ with increased wages and the most profitable jobs.

However, news of the case soon spread and there was a public outcry over the harsh sentence and the unjust manner in which the men had been convicted.

On the 24 March 1834, 10,000 people attended a meeting held by Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trades Union.

On the 21 April up to 100,000 people assembled at Copenhagen Fields, near King’s Cross. Led by Robert Owen the demonstrators marched through London to Kennington Common.

They brought with them a petition of over 200,000 signatures calling for the Tolpuddle Martyr’s to be pardoned, but the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne refused to accept it due to a large number of people present.

The London Central Dorchester Committee was formed to campaign for the release of the six men and to raise funds for their families.

Questions were asked in Parliament. The first of several petitions calling for the men to be pardoned was presented to the House on the 26 March. The Radical MP Thomas Wakley and William Cobbett MP for Oldham were vociferous campaigners for the men’s release.

In June 1835 the new Home Secretary Lord John Russell proposed to give the men conditional pardons, but this was rejected. In the face of continued pressure, the Government finally granted a full pardon on the 14 March 1836.

George Loveless arrived back from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in June 1837. Thomas and John Standfield, James Loveless and James Brine returned from Australia in March 1838 and James Hammett in August 1839.