Backwaters of History No.11 – The Tolpuddle Martyrs

The parish constable of the little village of Tolpuddle in Dorsetshire had a most embarrassing and distasteful task to perform. He had to arrest his friend and neighbour George Loveless. It was just breaking day on a cold February morning in 1834 when the constable accosted Loveless, who had just left his home on his way to work, and took him round the village to collect five others, James Hammett, young James Brine, Thomas Standfield and his son John, and George Loveless’s brother James. The warrant for the arrest of these six farm labourers charged them with having participated in the administration of an illegal oath. The constable, having gathered them all together, marched them seven miles into Dorchester, where they were brought in front of the local magistrates, Mr. C. B. Wollaston and Mr. James Frampton, who committed them to prison. They were stripped, searched, their heads were shaven and they were thrown like criminals into Dorchester gaol.

Since the beginning of the century the wages and conditions of the agricultural labourers had been getting steadily worse. Prices had risen during the Napoleonic wars without a corresponding raise in wages, The enclosures taking place, together with new methods of farming, were reducing the demand for agricultural labour. Conditions became so bad that landowners and farmers were compelled to do something.

A group of 18 persons, including seven clergymen, met in the Pelican Inn at Speenhamland, Newbury, Berkshire, to discuss the situation. They decided that a fixed sum, based on an allowance of 26 lbs. of bread per week for a man and 13 lbs. for a wife and each child, should be accepted as a necessary weekly income for a labourer. If a man’s wages were less than the sum fixed they were to be supplemented from the poor relief. This idea spread and became known as the Speenhamland system. It encourage landowners and farmers to reduce wages and it caused local rates to increase alarmingly. Efforts to keep the rates from rising resulted in a lowering of the labourer’s allowance so conditions got worse and worse.

Ever since Waterloo the half starved rural workers had, on occasions and in different places, rioted and indulged in some hay rick burning. In 1830 there was general excitement throughout the country and the rural workers in Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, Wiltshire, East Anglia and some other counties broke out into a general revolt. All over southern England workers met and organised themselves into bands under leaders elected on the spot. The bands marched out to destroy threshing machines, burn hay ricks, take over the control of villages, demand the payment of higher wages and the remission of tithes and rents. In some districts the local overseer was taken for a ride in a manure cart and tipped into the village pond. In the whole of the revolt the labourers neither killed nor wounded one single person.

The newly elected Whig Government, with Lord Melbourne at the Home Office, responded to the urgent and frantic demands of the landowners and sent troops to the affected area to stamp out the revolt. The unarmed labourers had not the power to even attempt to resist. Nine were hanged, 457 were transported and about 400 sentenced to varying periods of imprisonment.

Henry Cook, of Micheldever in Hampshire, a youth of 19, was amongst those hanged. His crime being that he had struck a well known financier named Bingham Baring and damaged his hat. Yet, despite the savagery of the suppression of the revolt, it did not stamp out the secret and sporadic rick burning and machine smashing.

In practically all parts of Dorsetshire agricultural workers received a wage of 10s. a week. At Tolpuddle the wages were only 9s. a week, but when the Tolpuddle landowners were approached by George Loveless on behalf of the local labourers, they agreed to raise to 10s. This agreement was never kept, in fact, a reduction to 8s. was imposed. The labourers appealed to the justices without success and the landowners took revenge by a further reduction to 7s., with a threat to go as low as 6s. if the men were recalcitrant.

Industrial workers in Britain were suffering in a similar manner to their rural colleagues. Wages were kept down in the face of rising prices. The workers’ inclination to organise to resist this worsening condition was subdued by the hated Combination Acts. A few illegal organisations were formed but when the Combination Acts were repealed in 1825, Trade Unions, Benefit Societies, and all forms of working class associations, sprang up in profusion.

Early in October, 1833, a national conference of Trade Unions, Co-operative Societies and Benefit Societies, was held in London and here, Robert Owen proposed the formation of a ‘Grand National Moral Union of the Productive Classes of Great Britain and Ireland.” A start was made and another conference held in Robert Owen’s London Institute, Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, early in February, 1834, drew up a constitution and adopted the title, “Grand National Consolidated Trade Union.” Within a few weeks of launching, this “One Big Union” was boasting a membership of half a million.

Robert Owen had ideas for using this Union to achieve a co-operative commonwealth but most of the delegates to the conference were concerned with fighting for better wages and shorter working hours. Rule XLVI of the G.N.C.T.U. reads:

    “Although the design of the Union is, in the first instance, to raise wages of the workmen, or prevent any further reduction therein, and to diminish the hours of labour, the paramount rights of Industry and Humanity by . . . bringing about A DIFFERENT ORDER OF THINGS, in which the really useful and intelligent parts of society only shall have the direction of its affairs.”

    (Quoted by Allen Hutt in British Trade Unionism. page 18.)

The G.N.C.T.U. was formed by federating a number of national trades unions most of which were organised into local lodges or branches. There were shop-assistants and journeymen chimneysweeps; Ploughmen’s Unions and Shearmen’s Unions; the Grand Lodge of Operative Bonney Makers; the Lodge of Female Tailors and the “Ancient Virgins”; carpenters, brewers, bricklayers, engineers, calico printers, cabinet makers, spinners, weavers, dyers, pottery workers, and, to remind us of London’s rural surroundings, a union of the agricultural labourers of Kensington, Walham Green, Fulham and Hammersmith.

It is not a matter of surprise that the idea of forming a union percolated to the little quiet village of Tolpuddle. George and James Loveless got in touch with men who were propagating the “One Big Union” idea and then set about forming a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. In the days when such organisations were illegal an elaborate system of initiation ceremonies had grown up, with handgrips, signs, blindfolding of initiates and swearing of oaths. Although this process of making the society a “mystery” was no longer necessary, it had become customary and was still widely adopted. In consequence, the Tolpuddle workers ordered a large size painting of a skeleton, obtained a Bible and a white sheet and took a room in the cottage of Thomas Stanfield for their Union meetings.

A rule book was prepared in which it was stated that the entrance fee was 1s. and contributions 1d. a week. There was to be no obscenity, and no political or religious subjects were to be discussed during lodge hours. Members were bound not to strike for more pay without the consent of the Grand Lodge but if a master reduced pay they must all walk off together after finishing the work in hand. Everyone was pledged to cease work in support of any member who was victimised for his Union membership. Rule 23 shows the views of the founders:

    “The object of this society can never be promoted by any act or acts of violence but, on the contrary, all such proceedings must tend to hinder the cause and destroy the society itself. This Order will not countenance any violation of the laws.”

    (Quoted in The Martyrs of Tolpuddle published by the T.U.C. page 23.)

The growth of trade unionism throughout the country, together with a recognition of the power of a nation wide union of all workers, caused a panic amongst the employers. A number of fierce and violent strikes in London, Oldham and the Potteries, added to their fears. The landowners and farmers around Tolpuddle were going to take no chances; they intended to suppress trade unionism. The justices of the Dorchester Division of the County of Dorset issued a proclamation threatening those who induced others to join unions with transportation for seven years for committing a felony.

During December, 1833, the Tolpuddle trade unionists admitted to membership of their lodge two men, John Lock and Edward Legg. These two turned out to be informers and, on the basis of their statements, the six Dorchester labourers were arrested. They were imprisoned till Saturday, March 6th., when they were removed to the County Hall for the trial which lasted four days. They were charged under the Mutiny Act, 37 of George III., cap. 7, with administering an illegal oath. This Act was passed in 1797 to deal with the naval mutinies at The Nore and had no relation to legal trade union organisation. The indictment was prepared by Sergeant Wilde, M.P., who stated later that he was entrusted with the job of conducting the prosecutions instituted by the Government on that circuit.

The whole trial was a travesty. The justices were local landowners and employers with outspoken prejudices against the accused; the jurymen were fearful for their livelihood; the judge put words into the mouths of witnesses. The six men, who conducted themselves courageously, were sentenced to seven years transportation and within a week were packed off in convict ships to Botany Bay and Van Diemen’s Land. Their sufferings on the ships and in the convict settlements of Australia and Tasmania are a story in themselves.

The brutality of this sentence and the new problem it caused for the Trade Unions, gave rise to a storm of protest. The G.N.C.T.U. organised the largest of a series of demonstrations. On Monday, April 21st, 1834, at 7 o’clock in the morning workers began to gather in Copenhagen Fields (behind the present site of King’s Cross Station), in preparation for the march. The numbers have been variously estimated at from 100,000 to 200,000. A petition to the King, requesting the granting of a pardon to the Tolpuddle men, signed by a quarter of a million people, was carried by 12 trade unionists and the monster procession, organised behind the banners and flags of its many societies, moved off. Through Guildford Street and Tottenham Court Road, around the West End of London to Whitehall, it wended its way. Whilst the petition was being present to the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, who refused it, the main part of the procession went on to the Elephant and Castle and Kennington Common, where it dispersed at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

Agitation for a pardon for the Tolpuddle labourers spread far and wide during the next two years. As trade union were realised to be less harmful to the interests of the employers than had at first been anticipated and, as mass demonstrations appeared to some people to be a potential threat to property, the Government finally relented and on March 6th, 1836, the King signed a pardon. It was another two years before the Dorchester men arrived back in England. Out of funds provided mainly by trade unionists they were presented with farms at Greensted Green, near Chipping Ongar, in Essex, and eventually they emigrated to Canada.

The Grand National Consolidated Trade Union had a short life. Strikes were many and violent, but the employers, helped by the Government, resisted stubbornly and, after a number of set-backs, the workers lost heart and membership of the G.N.C.T.U. fell away. Finally it refused to sanction strikes and passed out of existence before the end of 1834.

There are still men who think, as did some of the founders of the Grand National, that by industrial organisation the workers can achieve a revolutionary social change. Events in England during the decade, 1830-1840, provide a few examples out of many to show that whilst political power is in the hands of the ruling class, the subject class can do little more than squirm.



The Martyrs of Tolpuddle, published by the T.U.C

The Tolpuddle Martyrs, by M. Firth and A. Hopkinson

The Village Labourer, by J. L. and B. Hammond

History of Trade Unionism, by S. and B. Webb

Trials of British Freedom, by T. A. Jackson


W. Waters

Leave a Reply