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The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of 19th century Dorset agricultural labourers who were arrested for and convicted of swearing a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. The rules of the society show it was clearly structured as a friendly society and operated as a trade-specific benefit society. At the time, friendly societies had strong elements of what are now considered to be the predominant role of trade unions. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were subsequently sentenced to penal transportation to Australia.
Before 1824/25 the Combination Acts had outlawed "combining" or organising to gain better working conditions. In 1824/25 these Acts were repealed, so trade unions were no longer illegal. In 1832, the year of a Reform Act which extended the vote in England but did not grant universal suffrage, six men from Tolpuddle in Dorset founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to protest against the gradual lowering of agricultural wages in the 1830s caused by the surplus supply of labour in an era when mechanisation was beginning to have an impact on agricultural working practices for the first time. This was a particular problem in remote parts of southern England, such as Dorset, where farmers did not have to compete with the higher wages paid to workers in London and in the northern towns experiencing the Industrial Revolution. They refused to work for less than 10 shillings a week, although by this time wages had been reduced to seven shillings a week and were due to be further reduced to six shillings. The society, led by George Loveless, a Methodist local preacher, met in the house of Thomas Standfield.
Groups such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs would often use a skeleton painting as part of their initiation process. The newest member would be blindfolded and made to swear a secret oath of allegiance. The blindfold would then be removed and they would be presented with the skeleton painting. This was to warn them of their own mortality but also to remind them of what happens to those who break their promises. An example of this skeleton painting is currently on display at the People's History Museum, Manchester.
In 1834 James Frampton, a local landowner, wrote to the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne to complain about the union, invoking the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797, an obscure law that prohibited people from swearing oaths to each other. James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, George's brother James Loveless, George's brother in-law Thomas Standfield, and Thomas's son John Standfield were arrested and tried before Sir John Williams in R v Lovelass and Others. They were found guilty and transported to Australia.
When sentenced to seven years' penal transportation, George Loveless wrote on a scrap of paper the following lines:
God is our guide! from field, from wave,
From plough, from anvil, and from loom;
We come, our country's rights to save,
And speak a tyrant faction's doom:
We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!
They became popular heroes and 800,000 signatures were collected for their release. Their supporters organised a political march, one of the first successful marches in the UK, and all, except James Hammett (who had a previous criminal record for theft) were released in 1836, with the support of Lord John Russell, who had recently become Home Secretary. Four of the six returned to England, disembarking at Plymouth, one of the departure points for convict transport ships. A plaque next to the Mayflower Steps in Plymouth's historic Barbican area commemorates this.
Hammett was released in 1837. Meanwhile the others moved, first to Essex, then to London, Ontario, where there is now a monument in their honour and an affordable housing co-op / trade union complex named after them. George Loveless is buried in Siloam Cemetery on Fanshawe Park Road East in London, Ontario. James Brine is buried in St. Marys Cemetery, St. Marys, Ontario. He died in 1902, having lived in nearby Blanshard Township since 1868. Hammett remained in Tolpuddle and died in the Dorchester workhouse in 1891.
Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum
The Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, located in Tolpuddle, Dorset, features displays and interactive exhibits about the Martyrs and their impact on trade unionism.
Cultural and historical significance
A monument was erected in their honour in Tolpuddle in 1934, and a sculpture of the martyrs, made in 2001, stands in the village in front of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs festival is held annually in Tolpuddle, usually in the third week of July, organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) featuring a parade of banners from many trade unions, a memorial service, speeches and music. Recent festivals have featured speakers such as Tony Benn and musicians such as Billy Bragg and local folk singers including Graham Moore, as well as others from all around the world.
The courtroom where the martyrs were tried, which has been little altered in 200 years, in Dorchester's Shire Hall, is being preserved as part of a heritage scheme.
The story of Tolpuddle has enriched the history of trade unionism, but the significance of the Tolpuddle Martyrs continues to be debated since Sidney and Beatrice Webb wrote the History of Trade Unionism (1894) and continues with such works as Dr Bob James's Craft Trade or Mystery (2001).
There are streets named in their honour in:
In 1984, a mural was created in Edward Square, off Copenhagen Street, Islington, to commemorate the gathering of people organised by the Central Committee of the Metropolitan Trade Unions to demonstrate against the penal transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Australia. The mural was painted by artist David Bangs.
Comrades was a 1986 British historical drama film directed by Bill Douglas and starring an ensemble cast including James Fox, Robert Stephens and Vanessa Redgrave. Through the pictures of a travelling lanternist, it depicts the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
- Convicts in Australia
- Peterloo Massacre
- R v Lovelass and Others (1834) 172 ER 1380
- Swing Riots
- UK labour law
- Davis, Graham (2011). In Search of a Better Life: British and Irish Migration. The History Press. p. 94. ISBN 9780752474601. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
- Collection highlights, Secret Society Skeleton Painting, People's History Museum
- (1834) 6 Carrington and Payne 596, 172 E.R. 1380; also reported in (1834) 1 Moody and Robinson 349, 174 E.R. 119
- Anon (2009). Crime and Punishment in Staffordshire. Staffordshire Arts and Museum Service.
- Political Marching: What's at risk? BBC News, 27 November 2010
- "Tolpuddle Martyrs courtroom to be centre-piece of new Dorset heritage centre". Western Gazette. 16 July 2014. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
- "Tolpuddle Martyrs Mural". London Mural Preservation Society. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
- Tolpuddle Martyrs' Story Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum Trust
- History of Trade Unionism (1894) Sidney and Beatrice Webb
- Craft Trade or Mystery (2001) Dr Bob James
- The Book of the Martyrs of Tolpuddle 1834–1934, London : The Trades Union Congress General Council (1934) – Memorial Volume (printed by the Pelican Press) 240 pages. Modern reprint (1999) Tolpuddle Martyrs Memorial Trust, ISBN 1-85006-501-2
- Marlow, Joyce, The Tolpuddle Martyrs, London : History Book Club, (1971) and Grafton Books, (1985) ISBN 0-586-03832-9
- Tolpuddle – an historical account through the eyes of George Loveless. Contemporary accounts, letters, documents, etc., compiled by Graham Padden, TUC, 1984, updated 1997.
- "The Martyrs of Tolpuddle – Settlers in Canada". Geoffrey R. Anderson 2002. A privately published 70-page booklet available at the London Public Library, and also at the Regional Collection, UWO
- Dorset Pioneers: Jack Dwyer: The History Press: 2009: ISBN 978-0-7524-5346-0
- "TOLPUDDLE MARTYR; Pioneer Farmer, James Brine in Canada 1844 – 1902". Don Macintyre 2010. Privately published 71-page booklet available at St. Marys Museum and St. Marys Library, St. Marys, Ontario, Huron County Library, Ontario; Middlesex County Library, Ontario; London Public Library, Ontario; Dorset County Library, England. ISBN 978-0-9866023-0-6.
- Hollis, Patricia, Class and conflict in nineteenth-century England, 1815–1850, Birth of modern Britain series, International Library of Sociology and Social Reconstruction, Routledge, 1973, ISBN 0-7100-7419-0
- Dorset History Centre holds relevant books and original records (including the Dorchester prison register in which the Martyrs are listed)
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