The Tolpuddle Martyrs: the origins of trade unionism

"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." (George Loveless)

In the early 1830s, Dorset farm labourers in the village of Tolpuddle, already mired in poverty, had received a wage decrease from 9s a week to 7s, with the prospect of further cuts to come. Rent and a basic diet of tea, bread and potatoes would typically cost a family 13 shillings a week.

To protect their rights, and demand wages of no less than 10s per week, workers came together to form a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers in 1833, aligning with the newly created Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, and led by community leader and Methodist, George Loveless. Entry into the society involved a payment of a shilling, and the swearing of an oath under a sycamore tree.

Since 1824, unions had been legal organisations, and the society flourished. So why were the society’s members brought to trial and punished?

What was the government afraid of (and why were workers protesting)?

The government had taken repressive measures to control domestic unrest for some years. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 (Gazette issue 15367) had been passed by Pitt’s government, outlawing unlawful ‘combinations of workmen’, and collective bargaining (trade unions) that organised workers to call for better working conditions and increased wages (or just those that were in line with inflation).

The Combination Acts had been repealed by Lord Liverpool’s government in 1824 (Gazette issue 18039), meaning such bodies were no longer illegal, seemingly a step forward for workers. But after an outbreak of strikes, restrictions were again put in place in 1825, severely limiting union activities, if not making them illegal. This left areas open to interpretation of what was deemed as intimidation or obstruction, and what was seen as lawful protest. Either way, the intention was to prevent workers from legally objecting to their worsening circumstances.

Progressively decreasing pay, a surplus of workers in a growing population causing under-employment, the advent of agricultural machinery, and poor harvests of 1828 and 1829, all combined to create wretched circumstances and resulting unrest amongst agricultural workers.

By the 1830s, for the government and landowners, instances of arson, threats and riots and rumours of further disorder – as well as the backdrop of the French Revolution, and the Swing riots by agricultural workers in the south and East Anglia in 1830 – were a growing cause for alarm.

Arrest for unlawful oaths

When news of the new Tolpuddle society spread, the local magistracy, acting on a tip-off from landowners, obtained approval from Lord Melbourne, home secretary, to arrest the leaders for ‘unlawful oaths’ under a statute of 1797, the Unlawful Oaths Act, ‘An Act for more effectually preventing the administering or taking of unlawful Oaths’ (Gazette issue 14029).

So, though the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers was a legal society, the pledge of loyalty that was made was apparently not. On 22 February 1834, the six leaders: George Loveless and his younger brother James; Thomas Standfield and his son, John; James Brine and James Hammett, were arrested and brought to trial at Dorchester Assizes.

Punishment and public outcry

In March 1834, after a two-day trial, the six men were sentenced by the 12-man jury to seven years’ transportation to New South Wales, Australia. This was the maximum sentence that they could have received. The judge, Baron Williams, claimed that the safety of the country was at stake: they were being made an example of.

The men were assigned to landowners to work as convict labourers, with George Loveless sent to Tasmania, after illness delayed his journey.

The news spread from the press gallery to the whole country, and public outcry spread. The Tolpuddle men became popular heroes, and protest at their harsh punishment grew. A huge demonstration took place in April 1834 in London and petitions were presented to parliament. In March 1836, public pressure forced the government, and the new home secretary, Lord John Russell (who went on to become the last Whig prime minister, Gazette issue 20620), to rescind the sentences. Three years after being sentenced, the six men returned to England, and in March 1836, all received a full and free pardon.

Only James Hamnett was to return and remain in Tolpuddle, with the other five and their families seeking new lives in Canada.

Trade unions were not legalised until the Trade Union Act of 1871 (Gazette issue 23751), but the Tolpuddle case remains an important event in the history of UK labour law and the origins of trade unions.

Find out more: Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum

Image: Copenhagen Fields, London, 21 April 1834, where thousands marched in protest