In the winter of early 1834, the trial and imprisonment of six agricultural labourers from Dorset was set to change history. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, as they came to be known, set off a chain of events that marked the first great trade union victory, and paved the way for further reform.
But how did a small group of ordinary men go on to achieve something extraordinary? Here’s 10 facts about the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
1. We owe the phrase ‘like chalk and cheese’ to these events
Between 1770 and 1830, land enclosures and the emergence of new farming machinery changed England’s rural landscape. Landowners annexed vast areas in order to generate more wealth from small hedged fields. Rural peasants no longer had plots of land to grow produce or commons to graze their sheep and cows.
The chalklands of Dorset were difficult to farm. Anything that could be produced was scarcely enough to sustain the local population. In contrast, further north and west, clay soils were much more fertile, with areas like Cheddar in Somerset being known for their cheese production.
This is where we derive the phrase ‘like chalk and cheese’.
2. Protesters initially united behind the fictitious ‘Captain Swing’
Life was hard. People were malnourished, with poor harvests, depression, and severe wage cuts in the 1830s hitting areas even harder. This fuelled an explosion of anger, with workers rioting behind the mythical ‘Captain Swing’ in November 1830. They sent letters to their employers – signed by said ‘Captain Swing’ – threatening damage unless they were paid and the agricultural machines destroyed.
The uprising grew, with rioters destroying machines, committing arson, and assaulting overseers. Some 600 rioters were imprisoned, 500 were sentenced to transportation, and 19 were executed. The riot was quickly suppressed, and any labourer demands that were met were repealed shortly after.
3. First talk of a union took place under a sycamore tree
Farm labourers in Tolpuddle were earning nine shillings a week and living in abject poverty. They met under the sycamore tree on the village green to discuss how to improve their working conditions and halt pay cuts.
Labourer George Loveless made the case for a union in Tolpuddle to give the labourers bargaining strength. The landowners, led by aristocratic landowner James Frampton, were supported by the government in aiming to crush dissent and squash the unions. Tensions began to rise.
4. The union used an oath to bind members to the cause
George Loveless and his fellow union leaders founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. They needed to gather support from fellow labourers before they could present their case to the employers. They collected pennies as subscriptions, and to bind workers together they employed the use of an oath of solidarity.
New members were asked to pledge their support in the upstairs room of Thomas Standfield’s – one of the members – cottage, by being blindfolded and putting their hand on the Bible. After pledging their allegiance, they would be presented with a picture of a skeleton, to both warn them of their own mortality and remind them what happened to those who broke their promises.
This oath would later prove to be part of the Tolpuddle Union’s undoing.
5. The Martyrs were betrayed by a fellow labourer
Landowner James Frampton had been busily gathering evidence against the Tolpuddle men. There was already evidence from one of the fellow labourers who had betrayed them at a preliminary magistrate’s inquiry.
Frampton then gathered more evidence, accusing the labourers of entering into dangerous groups which were bound by oaths that were administered secretly. A warrant for their arrest was issued, and the six men were brought in for trial.
6. The outcome of the trial was already decided
The men were tried at Dorchester Assizes in March 1834. The Grand Jury’s foreman was William Ponsonby MP, brother-in-law to the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne. The jury included James Frampton, his son Henry, his step-brother Charles Wollaston, and several of the magistrates who had signed the arrest warrant.
The men were found guilty via two laws used in combination. The first was creating the union itself, and the second was administering an unlawful oath. They were sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia, which was often a death sentence. The harshness and injustice of their punishment caused massive public outcry.
7. The Martyrs wrote a booklet about their experience of transportation
Transportation was an infamously brutal punishment from which few ever returned, either due to death or being unable to afford the fare home after their sentence ended.
Five of the men were shipped to New South Wales, where they were assigned as convict labour to landowners. Having been delayed by illness, George Loveless went to Tasmania. Conditions onboard the boats were dire, with diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and smallpox killing a number of those on the journey.
Each of the martyrs described their experience of transportation in a booklet they later published in 1839 called ‘The Horrors of Transportation’. In it, George Loveless wrote ‘…it is dreadful in the extreme, so much so that a person who has never been there can have no idea of it.’
8. 100,000 people gathered in protest
News of the dire conditions the prisoners were experiencing in the colonies reached England. Unbeknownst to the prisoners, there was widespread outrage, and the burgeoning trade union movement began to organise a campaign for their release.
In March 1834, a Grand Meeting of the Working Classes was attended by over 10,000 people. This was just the beginning. Organised by the London Central Dorchester Committee, a campaign for the men’s pardon began. In April 1834, up to 100,000 people assembled near King’s Cross. The government responded with an enormous military and police presence.
The protesters marched towards Whitehall with a large petition that eventually garnered over 800,000 signatures from across the nation.
9. A nationwide campaign led to the Martyrs’ full and free pardons
Despite initial resistance, by June 1835 the Martyrs had been granted conditional pardons by the Home Secretary. Following further pressure, and 16 more petitions being presented to Parliament, the men were granted full and free pardons by March 1836.
The six farm workers from Tolpuddle were on their way home as free men. Trade unions had scored a victory in their first big challenge.
10. All but one of the Martyrs campaigned and wrote of their experiences, which further catalysed change
In June 1837, George Loveless was the first to return to Tolpuddle. He went to on write ‘The Victims of Whiggery’. It was a powerful polemic, and was oft-quoted when rallying movements against bad employment practices. Profits from the pamphlet were donated to the Martyrs’ families.
James Loveless, James Brine, Thomas and John Standfield arrived in March 1838. A formal public welcome was organised by the Committee of Trades. Later the same month, all four men were welcomed at a grand dinner in White Conduit House, London, with around 2,000 people.
James Hammett was the last of the men to return home, and was welcomed at the Victoria Theatre – now known as The Old Vic. Having got in trouble with the law in Australia, he was the only one of the men who didn’t speak of his experiences.
The London Dorchester Committee raised funds to buy leases for farms in Essex for the Martyrs. Five of the Martyrs began campaigning for working men’s rights under the Chartist movement, which was the first mass movement driven by the working classes. It campaigned for universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot, annually elected Parliaments, payment of members of Parliament, and abolition of the property qualifications for membership.
The Chartist campaign did not win the reforms it called for, and it was many more years before working men and women had the right to vote. However, the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ campaign to win free pardons and safe passage home crucially confirmed the right of working people to organise themselves into trade unions as part of a free society.