Tolpuddle Martyrs festival weekend

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Aslef Banner on the Toldpuddle Martyrs march at a previous festival
Aslef Banner on the Toldpuddle Martyrs march at a previous festival

THE TOLPUDDLE Martyrs annual festival where thousands of people come together to celebrate trade unionism and remember the role of the Tolpuddle Martyrs began yesterday and continues through Sunday.

In 1834, farm workers in west Dorset formed a trade union. Unions were lawful and growing fast but six leaders of the union were arrested and sentenced to seven years’ transportation for taking an oath of secrecy. A massive protest swept across the country. Thousands of people marched through London and many more organised petitions and protest meetings to demand their freedom.

Combination Acts, British acts of 1799 and 1800 made trade unionism illegal. The repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 was followed by a number of strikes, and in 1825 an unsuccessful attempt was made to reimpose the acts.

Between 1770 and 1830, enclosures changed the English rural landscape forever. Landowners annexed vast acreages, producing even greater wealth from the now familiar pattern of small hedged fields. Peasants no longer had plots to grow vegetables nor open commons for grazing their single cow or sheep and pigs.

Diet was basic – tea, bread and potatoes. As a result, the people were badly nourished and small. Poor harvests and depression in the 1830s hit the area even harder. Wages of 9 or 10 shillings a week reduced families to starvation level unless they could be supplemented by working wives and children.

Low wages, appalling conditions and unemployment, bad winters and poor harvests in 1829 and 1830 fuelled a great explosion of anger, resulting in riots led by the mythical ‘Captain Swing’ in November 1830. Workers would post letters to their employers threatening damage unless pay was improved or the new machines would be destroyed. The letters would be signed ‘Captain Swing’.

The uprising quickly spread across the south of England and through Dorset. 600 rioters were imprisoned, 500 sentenced to transportation and 19 executed. Some employers agreed to the workers’ demands but once order was restored wages were cut. George Loveless, in Tolpuddle, drew his own lessons from the consequences of this action and concluded there had to be a different way.

Farm labourers in Tolpuddle were earning nine shillings a week and living in dreadful poverty. They met under the sycamore tree on the village green and discussed ways to improve their lives and stop the employers from making further pay cuts, where Loveless made the case for a union in Tolpuddle to give the labourers bargaining strength.

The landowners, led by James Frampton and supported by the government, were determined to squash unions and to control increasing outbreaks of dissent. Frampton used a charge of administering an unlawful oath, using a law applicable to Naval mutinies not workers rights.

Loveless and the union leaders needed to gather support from farm workers before they could confront the employers. To build the union they needed to win members and collect the pennies in subscriptions so they had more strength in numbers. To bind workers together in this common approach they used an oath of solidarity.

New members were asked to pledge their support to the society and their fellow workers with their hand on a bible and looking at a picture of a skeleton. The oath was taken in the upstairs room of Thomas Standfield’s cottage in Tolpuddle. Squire Frampton wished Lord Melbourne to know that societies were being organised among the agricultural labourers, inducing them to enter into combinations of a dangerous and alarming kind to which they are bound by oaths administered clandestinely.

Melbourne advised caution. But once Frampton had proof of unlawful combination his lordship advised him to study section 25 of 57 Geo. III, c. 19, the Act of Parliament whose purpose was to more effectually prevent Seditious Meetings and Assemblies. A rigged trial was presided over by Judge Baron Williams whose closed mind was evident even before it properly began.

‘The object of all legal punishment is not altogether with the view of operating on the offenders themselves, it is also for the sake of offering an example and a warning,’ he declared. The landowner magistrates found a way of trapping and punishing the Martyrs, using two laws in combination.

The men were tried at Dorchester Assizes in March 1834, found guilty of administering an unlawful oath, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia. The harshness and injustice of their treatment caused massive public outcry.

Five Martyrs were shipped in appalling conditions to New South Wales, where they were assigned as convict labour to landowners. George Loveless, delayed by illness after the Trial, later went in chains to Tasmania. They did not return to England until three years after their infamous trial.

News of the punishment spread and the fledgling unions knew their very existence was under attack. They had to overturn this sentence and win the right to organise. Unknown to the six farm workers on the other side of the world, their case was being taken to Parliament and onto the streets of the capital.

On 24th March 1834, there was a Grand Meeting of the Working Classes, called by the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union on the instigation of Robert Owen. The meeting was attended by over 10,000 people: it was just the beginning.

The agitation spread and grew. The London Central Dorchester Committee was formed to campaign for the men’s pardon. A vast demonstration took place on 21st April 1834. Up to 100,000 people assembled in Copenhagen Fields near King’s Cross. Lifeguards, the Household Cavalry, detachments of Lancers, two troops of Dragoons, eight battalions of infantry and 29 pieces of ordnance or cannon were mustered. More than 5,000 special constables were sworn in. The city looked like an armed camp.

The government tried to resist the mounting protest but the agitation for the men’s release was maintained. By June 1835, ten months after the Martyrs’ arrival in penal colonies, conditional pardons had been granted by Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary. Russell had jumped the gun: legally, a convict could not be conditionally pardoned under four years. The flurry of correspondence between Whitehall and the Sydney and Hobart Government Houses caused confusion and delay.

The Tolpuddle men refused to accept compromises and after further pressure, the government agreed on 14th March 1836 that all the men should have a full and free pardon. Trade unions had won and survived their first big challenge. The six farm workers from Tolpuddle were on their way home as free men.