The Tolpuddle Martyrs helped pave the way for the creation of trade unions and the protection of workers’ rights. This is their story.
Sunrise, 24 February 1834. In the Dorset village of Tolpuddle, farm labourer George Loveless, 37, says goodbye to his wife and children. He doesn’t know it, but it’s the last time he’ll see his family in their own home for three years.
Just moments later, George is served with a warrant for his arrest. Soon after, he and five other farm workers are sentenced to transportation to Australia. Their crime? Technically, they’ve sworn an illegal oath. But really, it’s because they’ve formed a trade union.
Tough times for farm workers
Life is hard for farm labourers like George. They survive mainly on tea, bread and potatoes – maybe some cheese if they’re lucky. In 1830, George earns nine shillings a week. Over the next few years this drops to eight, then seven. In 1834, George faces a further cut: just six shillings a week. His family will starve.
Led by George, local farm labourers meet under a sycamore tree in Tolpuddle to discuss their futures. They try to negotiate with their employers through the local vicar. Promises are made – but then broken.
A union formed and framed
With help from the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, George and his friends form the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. Their actions rattle local land owners and magistrates. This is trade unionism – and as far as the upper classes are concerned, trade unionism threatens their power.
Magistrate James Frampton wants the men to be made an example of. But trade unions are no longer illegal. James contacts the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, who suggests he looks at the Mutiny Act of 1797. This forbids ‘unlawful oaths’. And it just so happens that the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers have sworn an ‘unlawful’ oath of solidarity to one another…
So in February 1834, George Loveless, James Loveless, Thomas Standfield, John Standfield, James Brine and James Hammett are arrested and imprisoned in Dorchester. In March they are tried before a jury that includes James Frampton, his son and his brother in law. They are sentenced to seven years’ transportation and soon they are at sea – an ordeal of a journey with a brutal destination. Conditions in Australia are appalling and the Tolpuddle men are sold like slaves.
The sentence sparks a furious response from ordinary working people. On 21 April 1834 over 30,000 meet at Copenhagen Fields in London (now King’s Cross) to march for the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The Government brings in thousands of reinforcements to keep the peace, but the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union leads the procession with discipline and dignity. The demonstrators arrive at Whitehall to present their massive petition to Lord Melbourne. His response? He hides behind his curtains.
Campaigners keep the pressure on. The new Home Secretary Lord Russell makes several proposals for conditional pardons, but they’re not good enough. Finally, on 14th March 1836, Russell agrees to a full pardon for all six men.
Still, it’s not until 1839 that all six Tolpuddle Martyrs are back on home soil. But their experience has marked them, and only one decides to stay in Tolpuddle. George and his family eventually emigrate to Ontario, Canada. Here they lead peaceful, useful lives – George helps build a church and John becomes mayor of his district. Their descendants are still there today.
Ever since, the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ sacrifice has been remembered as part of the founding of the modern trade union movement – and a reminder of how hard ordinary working people had to fight for basic fairness at work and in society.