Tolpuddle Martyrs: transported in 1834 for forming a Trade Union
“The rich and the great will never act to alleviate the distress and remove the poverty felt by the working people of England. What then is to be done? Why, the labouring classes must do it themselves, or it will for ever be left undone.” George Loveless
In the history of the trade union movement, the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six farm labourers from a small village in Dorset, is an important event.
Their story is set in the context of the development of trade unions in England in the early nineteenth century, with the growth of industry at that time. In 1799 Pitt's Government passed a series of anti-Combination Acts which banned all clubs and societies formed by working people for the purpose of improving their pay and conditions.
The rural landowners, who continued to dominate the Government, and the increasingly confident factory owners, shared a joint fear of the democratic ideas of the 1789 French revolution with its popular proclamation of the principles of 'Freedom, Equality and Liberty'.
The Government, concerned to prevent an uprising here had in 1790 suspended the Habeas Corpus Act, using the pretext that supporters of the French revolution were planning something similar.
In his must-read book 'The Making of the English Working Class' E.P. Thompson claims that 'The Combination Acts were passed by a Parliament of anti-Jacobins [Jacobins was a common term for those supporting the ideas of the French Revolution] and landowners, whose first concern was to add to the existing legislation intimidating political reformers'.
The anti-Combination Acts had the effect of driving organisation underground, but it did not prevent workers continuing to combine, agitate and press for improved wages and conditions and as more and more of them were driven from the land into the factories they increasingly realised that only by combining could they improve their lot.
After 1799 workers continued to issue demands, hold meetings and even on many occasions organise protests and/or strikes. During this period the more enlightened members of the ruling class also began to recognise that outright repression was not likely to work and that in fact it could well drive the workers into taking more drastic revolutionary action.
At the same time it also became increasingly obvious that the French revolution was not going to be exported to Britain.
Thus a combination of working class pressure, enlightened self-interest on the part of some sections of the ruling class and reduced concern about the impact of the French revolution led to the repeal in Parliament of the anti-Combination laws in 1824.
Within ten years, during which there was a period of economic growth, new organisations were formed to represent different groups of workers such that in February 1834 it was possible to establish a general union, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU), initially organised by socialists who were supporters of Robert Owen. The GNCTU's official journal claimed a membership of half a million, although it is felt unlikely that so many were able to pay their subscriptions as they didn't have the money to do so.
A number of leading politicians and the bosses however remained resentful and the economic slump and growth in unemployment, which began in 1833-34, gave the landowners and the factory bosses the chance to attack the unions.
In the countryside, workers were increasingly impoverished. Landlords through the Enclosure Acts had taken common lands from them. Labourers therefore became increasingly dependent on employment by landowners.
The average wage of agricultural labourers in the 1830s was ten shillings, [50 pence today] but this began to be lowered. In Tolpuddle, in Dorset, wages were reduced first to eight shillings [40p] and then to six shillings [30p] a week. Tolpuddle farm workers called a meeting with the local magistrate, James Frampton, appealing to him to fix wages. This was refused. Farm workers in Tolpuddle were therefore forced to look elsewhere for support.
Following discussions with others, George Loveless, a farm worker and local lay preacher contacted the GNCTU and set up a meeting. 40 farm labourers, virtually the entire male population of the village, and two representatives of the GNCTU attended this. The meeting decided to establish friendly Society of Agricultural labourers as a branch of the GNCTU. The first six laborers, including George Loveless, enrolled in the union, which involved swearing an oath, in December 1833.
This gave the ruling class the opportunity to act. They resented and were fearful of the growth of trade unions and political societies, recognising their ability to increase wages and improve the conditions of workers. They also remained concerned that trade unions could politicise the working class about their own potential power. Lord Melbourne, the Whig Home Secretary at the time was particularly anti-working class. He had family connections in Dorset and knew the Tolpuddle magistrate, James Frampton.
In February 1834, the six Dorset men were arrested and in March 1834, tried at Dorchester Assizes. George Loveless himself later wrote that,
“the whole proceedings were characterised by a shameful disregard of justice and decency; the most unfair means were resorted to in order to frame an indictment against us.”
The jury had connections with many of the very landowners who had been cutting wages. One of the charges against the men related to the Mutiny Act and to the taking of oaths.
The men were found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. The sentence was met with widespread protests amongst the working class, including a meeting of 1,000 people in London, a one-day demonstration of 200,000 people in the capital and a petition of 800,000 signatories seeking a pardon for the men, which was initially refused.
The families of the six men were refused parish relief, but contributions were received for them from workers all over the country, enabling the families to remain in heir homes. Instead of weakening the trade union movement, it was in fact strengthened, by the injustice shown to the Tolpuddle men.
The campaign for the men's release continued and free pardons were granted to the men in March 1836, and they returned to England in the following two years. Only one however returned to Tolpuddle. Money was raised by supporters to buy seven-year leases on farms in Essex for the other five men, where they set up a branch of the Working Men's Association.
Later, George Loveless wrote a pamphlet about their experiences entitled "The Victims of Whiggery", in which he wrote, "the rich and the great will never act to alleviate the distress and remove the poverty felt by the working people of England. What then is to be done? Why, the labouring classes must do it themselves, or it will for ever be left undone.”
Few truer words can ever have been uttered.
Jeanie Molyneux and Mark Metcalf