Sentencing of the Tolpuddle Martyrs
- 19th March 1834 -
The wages for farm labourers was falling. The average wage was 10 shillings a week but in Dorset, and in the village of Tolpuddle, this had fallen to 7 with further cuts on the way. As a result George Loveless had formed a ‘Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers’, the forerunner of a trade union, to attempt to improve the pay and conditions of workers. He had consulted Robert Owen who had set up the National Consolidated Trade Union and was seen as one of the leading lights of workers’ rights. He advised Loveless on the initiation ceremony and the oath of loyalty. Upon payment of a shilling and swearing an oath, before a picture of a skeleton, never to tell the Union’s secrets, the society was born.
Unions were not illegal after the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 but the making of unlawful oaths was not allowed under a 1797 act of Parliament. The authorities were still very suspicious of the potential power of the working classes after the French Revolution and were keen to clamp down on anything that might lead to something similar in Britain. The Prime Minister was very much opposed to the Trade Union movement and after a tip off from local landowner James Frampton 6 farm labourers from the village of Tolpuddle were arrested for swearing a secret oath.
The 6 men, Loveless and his brother, James, Thomas Stansfield and his son John, James Brine and George Hammet were taken to the nearby town of Dorchester to stand trial. The jury was all male and made up of the farm owners who were their employees. The six stuck to their story and Loveless told the judge and jury
"My lord, if we had violated any law it was not done intentionally. We were uniting together to save ourselves, our wives and families from starvation."
After two days they were found guilty. Judge Baron Williams imposed the maximum sentence he could – transportation and 7 years in a penal colony in Australia. An example was being made of them. The crown court at Dorchester was one of the first to have a press gallery and because of this news spread quickly and protests started. On the 24th March 10,000 gathered in a march led by Robert Owen and on 21st April 100,000 assembled in Copenhagen Fields near Kings Cross and marched on Whitehall. They presented a massive petition of over 800,000 signatures, carried to Whitehall on the shoulders of 12 unionists. The Home Secretary hid behind his curtains and refused to receive it.
The 6 men themselves were hurried away to be shipped off, although Loveless was deemed too ill to travel and did not depart until May 17th. The others were taken to the prison ‘Hulks’ Leviathan and York, docked off Portsmouth. They were given coarse, convicts’ clothing and chained in leg irons. The ‘Hulks’ were condemned ships with three decks. Disease was rife – especially cholera, dysentery and smallpox. Many never completed the journey.
George Loveless explained: "To enumerate the various miseries and evils which prisoners are subjected to from the time of landing in the colony until their death, would be utterly impossible; suffice it to say it is dreadful in the extreme, so much so that a person who has never been there can have no idea of it.
James Brine gave more detail: "I was employed to dig post-holes . . . having walked so far without shoes, my feet were so cut and sore I could not put them to the spade. I got a piece of an iron hoop and wrapped round my foot to tread upon, and for six months . . . I went without shoes, clothes, or bedding, and lay on the bare ground at night. Shortly afterwards I was sent to the pool to wash sheep, and for seventeen days was working up to my breast in water. I thus caught a severe cold, and having told my master that I was very ill, asked him if he would be so good as to give me some-thing to cover me at night, if it were only a piece of horse-cloth. "No,"said he, "I will give you nothing until you are due for it. What would your masters in England have had to cover them if you had not been sent here? I understand it was your intention to have murdered, burnt, and destroyed everything before you, and you are sent over here to be severely punished, and no mercy shall be shown you."
By June 1835, 10 months after they had arrived, the outcry had grown so loud and Parliament so constantly reminded of their fate by the M.P.s William Cobbett, Joseph Hume and Thomas Wakeley, that conditional discharges had been granted by the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell. Unfortunately, this could not be done before the prisoners had served 4 years. After delays amounting to months they were given conditional pardons but all six of the men refused to accept this. Finally, on 14 March 1836 they were given full and complete pardons and allowed to return.
Loveless was the first to return on June 13th 1837. Of the 6 only George Hammet returned to Dorset. The other five emigrated to Canada. Hammet is buried in the churchyard at Tolpuddle. He died in 1891 after having taken himself off the workhouse in Dorchester so as not to be a burden to his family. George Loveless died in 1874 aged 77. Tragically one of his daughters, aged 4, died at sea on the voyage to Canada.
The future of the trade union movement was to continue to be tough. The Chartists didn’t get all that they wanted and the aim to get working people the vote, better pay and working conditions was to continue. After World War Two the movement grew rapidly and now most workers in the UK have the opportunity to join a union. The tree under which they used to meet is now managed by the National Trust and in 2000 the Trade Union Congress commissioned a new memorial to the martyrs. The design comes from that period when Loveless is in prison, too ill to travel whilst his other 5 colleagues have left. On the back are the words Loveless said at his trial, “We will, we will, we will be free.” Visitors can also sit next to Loveless in one of the other 5 seats. This is said by many to be the spiritual home of the Trade Union Movement.