On this day in history : 18th March 1834 – A group of six farm labourers from the village of Tolpuddle, Dorset, are sentenced to transportation to Australia for forming a trade union….

Although trade unions were not technically illegal, laws – known as the ‘Combination Acts’ – had been passed outlawing organised methods of gaining improved working conditions…. They proved to be so unpopular that after being repealed in 1824 they were replaced with the ‘Combinations of Workmen Act 1825’….Trade unions had now been legalised but were tightly restricted in their powers….

This was something that became all too evident to 37-year-old George Loveless, a Methodist preacher from Tolpuddle, who led discussions with local landowners about the recent lowering of agricultural wages…. An agreement was made to raise the weekly wage to 10 shillings – however, in Tolpuddle the landowners would only raise it to 9 shillings…. They then lowered it to 7 and were threatening to cut it again, to 6 shillings….

In 1833 six men, led by George Loveless, formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers…. They were eventually to become known as the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ and included Loveless himself, his brother James, their brother-in-law Thomas Standfield (in who’s cottage they would meet), another Thomas Standfield (their nephew) – and two other men, James Hammett and James Brine…. Their aim was to protest against the lowering of the agricultural wage – but with the emphasis on being a friendly society….

Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Museum and cottages

Landowners were determined to stamp out all organised protests….memories of the French Revolution still being very fresh…. It was magistrate and local landowner James Frampton who wrote to the then Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, to complain of this new ‘trade union’…. Melbourne suggested using the ‘Unlawful Oaths Act 1797’ – an obscure law brought into force in 1797 in response to the Spithead and Nore Mutinies by sailors in the Royal Navy…. It made making secret oaths illegal – and it was under this charge that the six men from Tolpuddle were arrested….

The men were brought before Sir John Williams at the Dorchester Assizes, where they were found guilty and sentenced to 7 years transportation to the Australian colonies…. On the 25th of May 1833 the six set sail on the ‘Surry’ from Portsmouth, bound for New South Wales…. Loveless did not make it that far, due to illness he disembarked early on the 4th of September and ended up at Van Dieman’s Land (changed to Tasmania in 1856)…. The others sailed on to Sydney and all six were assigned to the role of farm labourer….

Meanwhile, back in England, the six men had become heroes amongst the working classes…. Some 800,000 had signed a petition calling for their release, which was then delivered to Parliament…. Protests took place and a march involving thousands was organised through London – it was to be one of the first ever successful marches of its kind in the United Kingdom…. Collections were made to support the families of the men…. George Loveless himself had left behind a wife, Betsy and three children….

The Shelter, Tolpuddle – erected as a memorial in 1934 – image John Goodall CC BY-SA 2.0

The transported men were eventually pardoned in March 1836, with support from the new Home Secretary, Lord John Russell…. By now Loveless had asked his wife to join him on Van Dieman’s Land but after receiving a letter on the 23rd December saying she would not be coming he set sail for England – arriving on the 13th of June 1837….

Due to delays by the authorities in releasing the remaining men from their duties, the others (with the exception of James Hammett) did not get to leave until the 11th of September – finally arriving back in Plymouth on the ‘John Barry’ on the 17th of March 1838…. Hammett, having been charged with assault, arrived back in August 1839…. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were all finally back home…. An annual festival is now held in Tolpuddle to commemorate the events that were to lead to the foundation of today’s modern trade unions….

Martyrs’ Day commemoration, 2005 – Image : Dave Headey CC BY-SA 2.0

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