Why We Remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs

This weekend's Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival remembers workers deported from their country almost two centuries ago for the crime of organising a union.

The transportation of six agricultural labourers from Dorset to the penal colonies of Australia in 1834 for the crime of forming a union was a landmark event in West Country and British labour history.

The six workers—James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, James Loveless, John Standfield and Tom Standfield—were convicted by a court of swearing a secret oath to the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. Collectively, they became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their case provoked as mass campaign for their release across British society. Their cause remains celebrated today, almost two centuries later, by the labour and workers movement in the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival.

At the time of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, trade unionism in Britain was severely restricted if not illegal in many cases. After the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, Britain’s establishment feared similar revolts could take place across the Channel. So, in 1799 and 1800, Parliament passed the Combination Acts, outlawing trade unionism. Although these were watered down in 1825, the restrictions on workers’ organising remained severe—and anyone disrupting the operation of business interests could expect to be persecuted by the state.

The arrest of the Tolpuddle Martyrs took place against a backdrop of a collapse in wages and living conditions, and a rise in the mechanisation throughout the agricultural sector. These declining circumstances facing Britain’s substantial agricultural workforce provoked a rise in the frequency of popular protest movements. The most dramatic of these were the Swing Riots, mass and sometimes violent protests against the introduction of threshing machines to southern English farms. These led to a movement around the titular figure of ‘Captain Swing’ who would express the workers’ demands in letters to landlords, magistrates and parsons. 

The Swing movement’s methods—from breaking machinery to burning landlords’ property—had much in common with the radical textile workers in the Luddite movement, who had led a rebellion in Nottingham a decade or so earlier. Like the Luddites, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were also oath-bound and led by George Loveless, who would later become a significant figure in the Chartist movement. They were prompted to found the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers after bosses cut their already meagre wages by 4 shillings due to the increased use of machinery. 

Loveless demonstrated the class politics than ran through those early struggles of the British labour movement. “Labour is the poor man’s property,” he said, “from which all protection is withheld. Has not the working man as much right to preserve and protect his labour as the rich man has his capital?” The fledgling union led by Loveless and his five comrades set out their demands to the local establishment: they would not accept any pay offer less than 10 shillings a week.

It wasn’t only the local landlords and business interests who feared this nascent worker organisation. Lord Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister, saw in it the potential of a mass union movement across the agricultural heartlands of southern England. Together, they set out to crush the union by arresting the founding members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers for the obscure crime of completing secret oaths, a common practice within the early British labour movement, when public displays of union militancy often faced stiff penalty. 

Once arrested, the six men faced humilitating treatment while awaiting trial: their clothes were stripped and searched, their heads were shorn and they were locked together in a windowless room. There they remained, day and night, until their trial date was announced.

They were taken to Dorchester Assizes on 17th March 1834 to face charges for forming “confederacies not formed merely for seditious purposes, but for any illegal purposes whatever.” The court sought to demonstrate their guilt by means of testimony provided by a paid informant inside their union. This informant provided an account of inductions into the society consisting of members being led into a room blindfolded and then sworn to obey the rules and regulations of the society. These included paying money to cover strike pay and downing tools in defence of any member victimised for undertaking actions on behalf of the union. 

The six workers were convicted and sentenced to spend seven years in the then-penal colony of Australia. There, they would work as ‘convict labour.’ The announcement of their sentence inspired George Loveless to write a short poem in his cell: 

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!

The sentencing of the Tolpuddle Martyrs resulted in arguably the first mass campaign for workers rights in Britain. While the six were sent to various parts of Australia to labour on farms, 800,000 signatures were collected against their conviction. The campaign was marked by huge protests across the country—most significantly in London where it was reported that over 100,000 protestors escorted a petition to the Prime Minister, which was duly ignored. 

The fight for their unconditional release went on for two years until March 1836, when Whig-Liberal Home Secretary Lord John Russell authorised full pardons for the six and allowed them to return home. It took two or in some cases three years for most to make the voyage to England, with authorities hoping to deny them status as a cause célèbre. George Loveless, however, made it back earlier. In 1837, he went on to write a pamphlet about their ordeal and was eventually a leading delegate to the Chartist convention of 1839. Most of the other martyrs returned to their work on the farms.

The late Tony Benn MP would say that the Tolpuddle Martyrs episode marked “the turning point from feudalism.” “When the Martyrs came back from Australia people realised that while Parliament remained as it was they couldn’t change the law, so they campaigned for the vote and the Chartists and the Suffragettes came out of that.” 

It’s not difficult to see why their story resonates today: workers coming together to protect themselves against drastic reductions in their wages and a rise in the precariousness of their industry. In some ways, it’s a parable for the modern day Uberisation of the world of work. 

Fittingly, a festival remembering the Tolpuddle Martyrs is organised annually by the South West Trade Union Congress. This year’s festival kicks off this weekend and features debates on pressing topics facing workers and unions, from automation and climate change to securing rights under a Labour government and dismantling the Tories’ anti-union legislation.

The festival is supported by every TUC affiliate. One of its major supporters, Unite the union, is a successor to the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. In supporting this year’s festival, Unite’s Regional Chair for the South West Kevin Terry said it remained “vital” to celebrate the Tolpuddle Martyrs as “pioneers” in the struggle against “low wages, precarious work and mechanisation organised for the bosses.” Almost two centuries after they were sent to Australia, the trade union movement they helped to create doesn’t forget.