On this day in 1834 six Dorset farm labourers were sent to an Australian penal colony, but their ‘crimes’ helped change the face of employment rights for generations to come – and it all began in the small village of Tolpuddle.
An average wage for a farm labourer was 10 shillings a week, but the Tolpuddle men had seen theirs drop as low as 7 shillings a week, with the threat of more cuts. Swearing an oath was illegal, so, acting on a tip off from land owners worried about possible industrial unrest, they were arrested and brought to Dorchester to stand trial.
But the trial wasn’t seen to be just. They were tried before an all-male 12 jury. The jury men were farmers, and the employers of the labourers under trial. The farmers themselves rented their land from the gentry – but it was the gentry who had opposed the idea of the labourers uniting. The men on trial stuck to their view. Their leader was George Loveless, and in addressing the judge and jury, he wrote: “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.”
18 March 1834. 6 farm labourers from Tolpuddle were sentenced to transportation to Australia for forming a trade union. pic.twitter.com/CFtegNiTcL
— Prof.Frank McDonough (@FXMC1957) March 18, 2017
Even so, after a two day trial, Judge Baron Williams found them guilty: “The safety of the country was at stake”, he said. On the 18th March 1834 They were sentenced to seven years in a penal colony in Australia, where they would have been sold on as slaves. It was the maximum sentence they could have had. They had been made an example of.
But the Old Crown Court in Dorchester where the trial was held was one of the first in the country to have a press gallery. And because of this, news of the conviction spread nationwide. Other members of friendly societies saw the events in Dorchester as a possible threat to their own societies. Huge demonstrations were organised and the authorities were shocked at the scope of the nationwide protest.
And then eventually, after a change in Home Secretary, the six men were given a complete pardon, and four years later they returned to England. Only one of the men, George Hammet, returned to live in Dorset. He is buried in Tolpuddle. The others emigrated to Canada with their families in search of the freedom denied to them in their own land. But it was the courageous actions of these men that helped pave the way, across the world, for the creation of trade unions, and the protection of employees’ rights.
Leafy rural Dorset in the West Country of England seems an unlikely place to associate with many things we take for granted in the developed world these days – weekends, no child labour, 5 day week, healthcare, pensions, safe places to work, being paid in real money, employment rights etc. etc. – you know the things which organised labour has won for us all through sacrifice, struggle and solidarity. But it was here that six farm labourers changed the way we all work today. On 24th February 1834, six labourers from Tolpuddle were arrested on a charge of taking part in an illegal oath ceremony. The real offence was that they dared to form a trade union to defend their livelihoods. For this they were sentenced to seven years’ transportation to the penal colonies of Australia. The sentences provoked an immense outcry, leading to the first great mass trade union protest. The campaign won free pardons and the Martyrs’ returned to England. It was an historic episode in the struggle for trade union rights in Great Britain and around the world.
As the sun rose on 24th February 1834, Dorset farm labourer George Loveless set off to work, saying goodbye to his wife Betsy and their three children. They were not to meet alone again for three years, for as he left his cottage in the rural village of Tolpuddle, the 37-year-old was served with a warrant for his arrest. Loveless and five fellow workers – his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and Thomas’s son John – were charged with having taken an illegal oath. But their real crime in the eyes of the establishment was to have formed a trade union to protest about their meagre pay of six shillings a week – the equivalent of 30p in today’s money and the third wage cut in as many years.
With the bloody French Revolution and the wrecking of the Swing Rebellion fresh in the minds of the British establishment, landowners were determined to stamp out any form of organised protests. So when the local squire and landowner, James Frampton, caught wind of a group of his workers forming a union, he sought to stamp it out.
Workers met either under the sycamore tree in the village or in the upper room of Thomas Standfield’s cottage. Members swore of an oath of secrecy – and it was this act that led to the men’s arrest and subsequent sentence of seven years’ transportation. In prison, George Loveless scribbled some words: “We raise the watchword, liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!” This rallying call underlined the Martyrs’ determination and has since served to inspire generations of people to fight against injustice and oppression.
Transportation to Australia was brutal. Few ever returned from such a sentence as the harsh voyage and rigours of slavery took their toll. After the sentence was pronounced, the working class rose up in support of the Martyrs. A massive demonstration marched through London and an 800,000-strong petition was delivered to Parliament protesting about their sentence.
After three years, during which the trade union movement sustained the Martyrs’ families by collecting voluntary donations, the government relented and the men returned home with free pardons and as heroes.
The worker’s courage and struggle is commemorated each year. The Tolpuddle Festival is an annual gathering of trade union members in July to celebrate the work of the trade union movement. It is an opportunity to celebrate victories and push on going campaigns. It is also a chance to meet new people and catch up with old friends with the social events.
For full listings for the weekend visit;
Whilst in the village visit the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum tells the harrowing tale of the Martyrs’ arrest, trial and punishment, leading to the foundation of modern day Trade Unionism.
The museum is a modern, informative, and educational exhibition; using interactive touch screen displays new graphic panels telling the story in text and images. The museum sets out the Martyrs’ story in four sections: Before the arrest, The Oath and Betrayal, Transportation, and the Homecoming.
We can never take for granted what we owe to these six ordinary labourers who stood together for the rights of workers. Nor in modern Britain can we cease the struggle against the reactionary ideological heirs of Squire James Frampton who constantly belittle the role of labour as the source of honest values in Society and constantly seek to attack workers hard earned rights.