The Tolpuddle Martyrs
|This article was written by Margot Pitkin and sent to me by Michael Loveless of Sydney, Australia. It appeared in The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, Australia) on July 2, 1997.|
"The Returned Convicts"
Martyrs for unions.......
It started simply enough. For 19th century farm workers, life in the picturesque village of Tolpuddle in Dorset was brutal and impoverished. None had land of their own and they were at he mercy of wealthy farmers and landowners who paid a pittance - the equivalent of 70c a week. Across the country unrest among rural labourers was spreading. Haystack burning and damage to farm equipment as reprisals against despotic farmers were on the increase.
The best educated of six men was George Loveless. A man of great principle, he had taught himself to read and write and in time he became a Methodist lay preacher.
Change was sweeping through the towns and cities and, with the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, the first trade unions were deemed legal. Factory workers had already banded together to gain increased wages and improved conditions. But in rural Dorset the easiest way was to approach the landowners and Loveless asked the parson to intervene on behalf of the labourers. Initially it was successful and the wages were increased to the equivalent of $1.
Meanwhile, Loveless was reading tracts including Robert Owen's pamphlet on the Co-operative Movement advocating trade unions. But the farmhands' wage rise was short-lived. It reverted to its former amount and workers were warned it would be cut to 60c if they complained. It was against this background that in November 1833, Loveless and his brother James, Thomas Stanfield and his son John, James Hammett and Joseph Brine - formed the Tolpuddle Lodge of the Agricultural Labourers Friendly Society. In an upper room of Stanfield's cottage the group held a somewhat bizarre initiation rite based on a 14th century wool combers' ceremony. The ceremony also included a solemn oath of brotherhood and the intention of fighting for better wages. Their aim was to secure affiliation with the National Consolidated Trades Union which, founded a year earlier, already had 500,000 members.
News of the Dorset labourers' stand threw local landowners into a frenzy - and none more so than the well-connected magistrate and landowner James Frampton. On January 30, 1834, he wrote to Home Secretary Lord Melbourne stating local labourers were being induced to "enter into combinations of a dangerous and alarming kind, to which they are bound by oaths administered clandestinely". He went on to say that he had "trusty persons" (informers) watching them and asked what legal steps he could take.
Such was the respect held for landownership - as opposed to an industrial factory - that Melbourne, despite being well-aware that the men were within their rights to form a union, sought another way in which the movement could be crushed. The answer lay in a long forgotten 1797 Act Against Unlawful Oaths. It had been passed when naval rating at Spithead and the Nore mutinied demanding better conditions. The Act made swearing secret oaths an offence punishable by seven years transportation. Melbourne advised Frampton to invoke this Act and accordingly printed notices, signed by nine magistrates including Frampton, were posted in the Tolpuddle district on February 22, 1834.
The notices advised that anyone taking or administering unlawful oaths would be prosecuted. Vengeance was swift. Two days later the six men were arrested and charged. The trial opened on March 17, at Dorchester Assizes. From the outset it was obvious it was obvious that the judge (later Baron) John Williams was biased. In his opinion their secret oaths had made them guilty of sedition and treason. Judge Williams had little trouble directing the fury - made up of country squires and farmers - that the defendants were guilty. "If you do not find them guilty you will forfeit the goodwill and confidence of the Grand Jury," he said in his summing up.
With a guilty verdict ringing in their ears, the six were shackled ready for the first part of their journey which started with incarceration in rotting prison hulks. George Loveless fell ill and, despite begging to be allowed to sail with his companions, was kept in England while the other five were transported on the Surrey which left for Port Jackson on April 11. Loveless set sail to Hobart on May 25. Because of the political nature of their "crimes" the men were not too badly treated on arrival. They only spent a short time on the chain gangs before being assigned as servants.
Meanwhile back in England there was growing agitation at the travesty of justice. Slowly, as the protests showed no sign of abating, the government had to back down. The discontent was not confined to Dorset but spread to London and a Dorchester Committee started by leading radicals (know as Charists) kept public indignation alive.
Despite newspaper petitions, resolutions and letters, Lord Melbourne would not budge. It wasn't until there was a Cabinet reshuffle and Lord John Russell became Home Secretary that any move was made to reprieve the six - now know as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Twice a conditional pardon was offered until, vexed, Russell agreed to full and free pardons for them all.
Even then things did not go smoothly. Governor Richard Bourke in NSW and Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur in Tasmania made no effort to trace the convicts. If George Loveless had not read that the king had granted them free pardons in a month-old London newspaper they would have been none the wiser.
He wrote at once to his fellow 'martyrs' in NSW and then made his way to London where he arrived the following March and Hammett a year later.
The men were given a huge welcome in Dorset and were feted in London. But only Hammett stayed in the country. The others moved to farms purchased for them in Essex by a public subscription called the Dorchester Labourers Fund.
The move was short-lived and the five moved to Canada. They never returned to Tolpuddle. Their courage, however, proved to be a powerful incentive for the rise of trade unionism in Britain.