Today, many of us take the benefits of belonging to a trade union for granted. But in 1834, when six Dorset farm labourers formed a workers’ union to campaign for higher pay, they were severely punished. Their suffering, and the passionate efforts of many to obtain their pardon and secure their return, still resonates today.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, tensions between farm workers and landowners were already running high. Not only did the end of the Napoleonic Wars cause a significant detriment to the living conditions of rural labourers, the support of profits from supplying conscripted armies removed, but so did the modernisation of farming techniques; following the passing of the Land Enclosure Acts, landowners deprived other rural people from enjoying the common land, now enclosed with hedges and fences, and mechanisation, to increase agricultural yield and profit, caused many workers to be made redundant and laid off. Many employers even reduced wages, to as little as six shillings a week (about £20 in today’s money).
The atmosphere of desperation and palpable resentment among starving working-class communities culminated in the winter of 1830 to 1831, when a popular rural revolt, originating in Kent, swept the south of England, as far as Dorset and Devon. In a spontaneous, violent upsurge, farm workers banded together, burning haystacks and smashing new machinery, and delivering letters to the houses of gentry, threatening their property if they did not respond to the demands for higher pay. In response, newly appointed Home Secretary Lord Melbourne permitted landowners and magistrates to punish the rioters however they deemed appropriate; six hundred men were imprisoned, five hundred sentenced to transportation.
It is perhaps more understandable, then, why the six labourers, George Loveless, his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield, and his son John, felt compelled to establish the Tolpuddle Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, their first meeting in the Standfields’ cottage drawing forty Tolpuddle labourers in total, united by a determination to solve their common troubles. To the astonishment of the town, however, the six were arrested at dawn on the 24th February 1834 and taken to Dorchester County Gaol, where they were stripped of their clothes, searched and had their heads shaven, before being held in the grim cell beneath the Assize Court in Shire Hall. In George Loveless’ words: “The smoke of this place, together with its natural dampness, amounted to nearly suffocation, and in this most dreadful situation we passed nearly three whole days.”
The trial, presided over by head magistrate James Frampton, was, according to Loveless, “characterised by a shameful disregard of justice and decency”, as words were “put into the mouths of the witnesses by the judge”; one of which, Edward Legg, had been sworn into the union to act as an informant for Frampton. The men were dubiously charged under the obscure 1799 Act “for the more Effectual Suppression of Societies for Seditious and Treasonable Purposes” and the 1797 Mutiny Act, which made it a felony to administer an oath binding a person not to reveal an unlawful confederacy, and the framing of the charges enabled the prosecution and judge to impose the maximum sentence of the latter Act: seven years’ transportation.
For many, the trial signalled the beginning of the Martyrdom of the Dorchester labourers, and as they awaited their transfer onto prison hulks, Loveless wrote the Song of Freedom on a scrap of paper, the chorus of which is still sang today:
“We raise the watch-word, liberty.
We will, we will, we will be free!”
On the 111-day voyage to Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, the men, with 500 others, suffered terrible living conditions. The convicts’ packed quarters, in which they were fettered by their legs with heavy irons, were rife with disease and parasites, and upon arriving at the penal barracks on land, were met with harsh masters and frequent, vicious crime.
In Tolpuddle, the families of the six men lost their meagre incomes and were left destitute, but in wider England, the disgust that had spread as the news of the verdict did, had intensified into a surge of public uproar. Newspapers of all political leanings fuelled the clamour against the Establishment, for the severity of the sentence and the perceived deviousness of the judge in combining two Acts. Mass meetings of radicals and huge protests were held, and petitions totalling 800,000 signatures were presented to Parliament. After much campaigning, Home Secretary Lord John Russell obtained the King’s full, unconditional pardons of the men on 14th March 1836. Five of the labourers arrived home and were officially welcomed in London two years later.
Almost two hundred years later, the six ‘Martyrs’, their poverty, coalition, arrest, trial, deportation and glorious return, are commemorated in the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum in Tolpuddle and with various plaques and events worldwide. It is also important, however, for those in the present-day to recognise that it was the efforts and struggles of millions of people that drove the union and workers’ rights movement and allowed workers to be treated more fairly today, and not merely the suffering, however terrible, of a courageous band of Georgian men.
The case certainly throws light on the injustices some individuals experience as a result of the judicial system, and that fairness and fundamental human decency are often sacrificed in order to preserve the power and wealth of the elite, notions that are still relevant to modern society. Undeniably, the legacy of the labourers continues to inspire today, as an example of the sheer power that people, when united, can have.