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Tolpuddle Martyrs

Tolpuddle is the name of a village near Dorchester in Dorset. The history of the Tolpuddle martyrs is an important event in the history of early Trade union movement.These are some of the background events that are to be kept in mind while trying to understand the topic.

  • During the years 1833 and 1834 a great wave of trade union activity was taking place in England. The government did not tolerate any trade union movement and did not encourage the demands of the labourers. Lord Melbourne the Prime Minister at that time was bitterly opposed to trade union movements. But forming trade unions were not illegal in the 19th century. The labourers at Tolpuddle were paid a meagre amount of 7 shillings a week and they lived a miserable life
  • The ruling Whig government at that time was alarmed by the working class discontent in the country at this time .The government and the landowners, led by James Frampton were determined to squash any attempts at organising Unions and also to control increasing outbreaks of dissent.
  • During this time ,George Loveless established the ‘Friendly Society of Agricultural Workers’ in Tolpuddle in the year 1833 .Members willing to join paid a weekly subscription of a penny and had to pay a shilling to join. They organised secret meetings in which the members swore an oath of secrecy and solidarity in front of a painting of a skeleton to remind them of the solemnity of their oath.
  • The ‘Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers’ applied for affiliation to the newly formed Grand National Consolidated Trade Union but soon the local magistrate sent a notice to the society warning that administering unlawful oaths could be punished by seven years transportation .Soon six men who were members of the society were arrested.
  • These included George and James Loveless along with his brother- in- law Thomas Stanfield and his eldest son John .All four of them worked on the same farm .James Hammett and James Brine was also arrested .The arrests were organised by James Frampton .They were charged under the 1797 Unlawful Oaths Act.
  • The six farm labourers were condemned to be deported to a penal colony in Australia .The sentence was pronounced on 10 March 1834.
  • The labourers were arrested for taking unlawful oaths but the real reason was that they were trying to protest against the meagre wages .They had demanded their wages to be raised to 10 shilling per week but as punishment their wages were cut to 6 shillings a week.
  • Convicted and sentenced by a hostile judge and jury these six men became popular heroes .There was an immediate public response in all parts of the country, particularly in London .Large number of people participated in the demonstrations. The government largely ignored the popular sentiment and it was not until March 1836 the sentence was remitted.

Ms. Nikhila Narayanan
Assistant Professor
Dept. of English
Patna Women’s College, Patna
E-mail: nikhila.eng@patnawomenscollege.in