‘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.