I have just finished reading Bruce Kemp’s article about fascinating historical facts we manage to miss and which are not taught in school. I began to wonder how many people in Ontario know about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, five of whom are buried near London.
In 1834, six agricultural labourers from the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset, England who had tried to found a union to demand better wages were arrested and sentenced to transportation to Australian Penal colonies for seven years.
Why was the British government so hard on these men? During the first half of the nineteenth century Europe as a whole was in flux and in great ferment — revolutions, conquest and wars. Napoleon was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Soldiers returning home found no jobs and because trade had often been interrupted by all these petty wars, poverty had increased. All over Europe there were food riots, and various attempts to assassinate the King of France left other nations wary of anything resembling revolution.
Many radical writers were now demanding one man one vote, secret ballots and better representation of the people in Parliament. A radical politician called Hunt had tried to address a rally of about 600,000-800,000 peaceful people in St Peter’s Field, Manchester in 1819 and the panicking magistrates had sent in the cavalry to arrest Hunt. The horses and soldiers themselves began to panic at the tight crowd who wouldn’t let them pass, and drew their sabres to slash their way through, killing 80 or so people and causing a huge stampede that gravely injured around 800 people. This incident was then known ironically as the Peterloo Massacre.
Governments began to crack down on ‘reform’, but there were still rick burnings and food riots in 1830. Although the Great Reform Act of 1832 made some headway in getting the populace represented in Parliament, only 2% of citizens had the vote. The introduction of the Corn Law — intended to protect the price of home-grown wheat — pushed up the price of bread to nine shillings a loaf. That was an agricultural labourer’s weekly wage in Britain in the 1830s. A man had no money left for rent, clothes, candles, meat or firewood. In succeeding years this paltry sum was reduced to eight shillings and then seven. In 1834 farm labourers were threatened with a further reduction to 6 shillings a week — an evident starvation wage.
At this time in Tolpuddle there was a man of outstanding character, a Methodist preacher, George Loveless, and under his leadership some of the men of the village considered together how they might defend themselves against these progressive reductions of their wages. They attempted to come to terms with their employers, using the local vicar as an intermediary. Promises were made but not kept.
The Tolpuddle men turned for advice to the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, which was led by Robert Owen and which was then quickly winning members in industrial centres up and down the country. Two delegates of the Union came to Tolpuddle and as a result the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers was formed.
At the eruption of trade unionism in the village, the employers and the local magistrates took fright. Were they to be faced again with the riots and rick burning? One of the magistrates, James Frampton, sought guidance from the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne. The upshot was that George Loveless and five of his fellow labourers were arrested on 24 Feb 1834, imprisoned in Dorchester and at the Dorchester Assizes, in March 1834, were sentenced to seven years transportation.
There can be no doubt that the crime was forming a trade union, but since trade unions had not been illegal since 1824 some other legal motive had to be found.
Many trade unions of the time, still fearing legal repression and retaliation by employers, required members to take oaths of loyalty to the union and of secrecy as to its affairs. This procedure was common practice in other organizations such as Freemasons and the Orangemen’s Lodges. It was adopted by the Tolpuddle union and advantage was taken of this fact to charge the men under the Mutiny Act of 1797, which forbade the taking of unlawful oaths.
The union had been started in October 1833. After much consultation with Whitehall the local magistrates posted, in Tolpuddle on 22 Feb 1834, a notice cautioning the labourers against joining ‘illegal societies or unions, to which they bind themselves by unlawful oaths’.
Two days later the men were arrested. They were George Loveless and his brother James, James Hammett, Thomas Standfield and his son John and James Brine. Five were Methodists, the two Loveless brothers were also local preachers, so all were god-fearing men. Although Union members could possibly come out on strike, all acts of violence and violation of the law were expressly forbidden. Union members were also forbidden to utter obscenities in songs or toasts.
Following their arrest the men were lodged in Dorchester gaol. They were hurriedly tried in the Crown Court on 17th March and two days later the maximum sentence of transportation for seven years was passed. This seems exceptionally severe, but major sentences were regularly inflicted for what we would now consider minor crimes.
Before passing sentence the Judge asked them if they had anything to say and George Loveless handed him a letter which read:
‘My Lord, if we had violated any law, it was not done intentionally: we have injured no man’s reputation, character, person or property: we were uniting together to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children, from utter degradation and starvation. We challenge any man, or number of men to prove that we have acted or intended to act, different from the above statement.’
In passing sentence the judge explained that the object of all legal punishment is to offer a warning and deterrent to others so he gave them the maximum sentence to make sure the welfare of the country was upheld.
The men were sent to the prison ships at Portsmouth and in April 1834 set sail in the convict ship Surrey for New South Wales, where they landed in August. George Loveless had been ill after the trial so did not sail until May and was thus separated from the others and transported to Tasmania.
Back in England, much agitation was taking place. On the 24th of March there was a grand meeting of the Working Classes called by the Grand National Consolidated Trades Unions on the instigation of Robert Owen. It was chaired by Dr Arthur Wade, a powerful figure in London Radicalism. Ten thousand people attended and the agitation grew and spread. Funds were raised for the support of the men’s families by public subscription and a vast demonstration took place in April 1834, which was attended by 30,000 people in Copenhagen fields near where King’s Cross station now stands. Petitions by 800,000 people were laid before Parliament and eventually in April 1835 a pardon was proposed on condition that they stayed two years in the colony. But the Loveless brothers were not to be allowed to return as they were considered ringleaders. More agitation ensued and more petitions and finally in March 1836 all the men were fully pardoned.
Of course, with the delays in communication of those days the men did not all get home at once. Some arrived in June 1837, the Standfields did not arrive until March 1838 — the fourth anniversary of their trial — and James Hammett finally reached home in 1839.
The London Central Dorchester Committee, which had cared for the men’s families while they were away, found they had enough money to settle the men as tenant farmers in Essex. James Hammett joined them for a time but returned to Tolpuddle where he lived and worked and was later buried.
After the expiration of their leases on the farms, the other men all went to Canada and settled on farms near London, Ontario. George and his son arrived in Hamilton in 1844, set out for London on foot and settled near London in what is now Fanshawe Park Road near Highbury, where they led peaceful lives. Georges and his wife are buried in Siloam Cemetery. James Loveless lived in London Township and then moved into town to become caretaker of North Street Methodist Church. Thomas and John Stanfield settled on a farm near Bryanston. John Standfield eventually became Mayor of his district. The Brine family had originally moved to Huron County but later moved back to be near the Lovelesses and they are buried at St Mary’s. The Standfields and James Loveless were buried at Mount Pleasant and the descendants of these men live in Canada to this day.
In 1934, the Trades Union Congress built six Memorial Cottages for the use of retired agricultural workers in Tolpuddle and there is a charming Museum and a memorial seat under the Martyr’s Tree in the centre of the village. Every year, in Tolpuddle, there is a huge festival in celebration of the working man and his Labour and TUC members regularly visit London, Ontario to commemorate the struggle of the working man to unionize and obtain a fair wage for his labour.
The Story of the Tolpuddle martyrs – TUC guide published 1991
The Tolpuddle Martyrs – Joyce Marlow 1971 The History Book Club
Video You tube – An Illuminati Crime – Tolpuddle Martyrs
See also Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival 2010
Photos by Julia McLean
Prints – Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, Dorset, UK and TUC Booklet
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