“We must seek to remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs and use their legacy to drive our movement’s struggle for a better future for all in the 21st Century.”
Please note: The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival 2023 has unfortunately been cancelled today (July 15th) due to extreme adverse weather conditions and in the interests of public safety.
By Logan Williams
Every year the South West Trade Union Congress organises a festival remembering the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The festival is supported by every TUC affiliate and is a feature of every progressive’s calendar as Tony Benn once said “Tolpuddle gives me the confidence to keep going. It reminds us of every issue we’ve ever fought. Going to the festival is my annual injection. We need more Tolpuddles”.
But why has the festival become a pilgrimage for many across the left and labour movement?
The festival seeks remember the transportation of six agricultural labourers from Dorset to the penal colonies of Australia in 1834 for the crime of forming a union. 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 the rise of a similar revolutionary spirit to grow within the British working class. The government responded in 1799 and 1800 by passing the Combination Acts. These acts sought to outlaw 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 including the Captain Swing movement. Despite the rudimentary forms of organisation found within the contemporary agricultural labour movement, George 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?”
These politics led Loveless and his fellow works to refuse to accept any pay offer less than 10 shillings a week.
The nascent organisation led by Loveless and hundreds of other individuals across the agricultural heartlands of Southern England scared not only the local landlords and business interests but also Lord Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister. Melbourne saw within 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.
The Martyrs 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. 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.”
The modern labour movement faces similar challenges to those faced by the martyrs, we see workers across industries 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.
We must seek to remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs and use their legacy to drive our movement’s struggle for a better future for all in the 21st Century.
- Logan Williams is an NEU activist and an organiser for Arise Festival. You can follow Logan on twitter here, and follow the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival here.
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