In 1834, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried at the Shire Hall in Dorchester and sentenced to transportation.
Captain Swing Riots
Earlier that year these six English farm workers from Tolpuddle formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, and demanded higher wages. They did this to protest against the gradual lowering of agricultural wages. These men refused to work for less than 10 shillings (less than 50p) a week. By this time, wages had been reduced to seven shillings. A further reduction to six shillings a week was planned.
However, the Government had just quelled the “Captain Swing Riots” in 1830. This was a violent rebellion of social discontent which had caused much damage across the whole of southern England. Because of this the authorities were concerned about another rebellion.
Although the Reform Act of 1832 had made the forming of unions legal, in 1834, James Frampton, a local landowner in Tolpuddle, wrote to Home Secretary to complain about the society. The Home Secretary recommended that Frampton, who was a local magistrate, invoke the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797. This was an obscure law made in response to navy mutinies. It prohibited the swearing of oaths.
The Friendly Society’s members were arrested and charged under this Act. The six men were James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, George’s brother James Loveless, George’s brother in-law Thomas Standfield, and Thomas’ son, John Standfield.
Trial and sentence
All six men were found guilty and sentenced to transportation to Australia for a period of seven years. They were transported later in 1834.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs, as they were called, became popular heroes as a result of their treatment. 800,000 signatures were collected for their release. Their supporters organised a political march, one of the first successful political marches in the United Kingdom.
Eventually, the Government was forced to give in, and all six men were pardoned in March 1836. They returned to England from Australia in 1837 and 1838. They were welcomed home as heroes.
Since that day, Tolpuddle has been seen as a place of special importance in the history of the British Trade Union movement.
Only one of the six men remained in Tolpuddle, with the other 5 emigrating to Ontario, Canada, with their families.
Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival
The annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival is usually held in the third week of July. It is organised by the Trades Union Congress, and features a parade of banners from many trade unions, a memorial service, speeches, and music.