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The Tolpuddle Martyrs
by Brenda Ralph Lewis

The picture of death, with its grim, gaunt features was six feet high and awesome. It seemed to fill the cramped room of the cottage at Tolpuddle, Dorset, glowering down upon the two initiates who knelt cringing before it. For John Lock and Edward Legg, the sight increased the fears already fostered by the atmosphere of secrecy, and the solemn, white-robed figures of George Loveless and his brother James.

'Remember thine end!' James intoned, pointing to the picture and it was in trembling awareness of it that Legg and lock then took an oath never to reveal anything of the agricultural workers' union they were about to join.

Scenes like this, deliberately designed to appeal to primitive fears and stir deep-rooted superstition, were not uncommon in the forming of trades unions in the 19th century. Intelligent men like George Loveless, founder of the Tolpuddle union in December 1833, disliked such ritual, but it was virtually the only way to impress illiterate workers whose spirits had been withered into apathy by endless labour and poverty. As George Loveless and his fellow unionists knew only too well, a wage that never exceeded 9 shilling a week offered nothing but despair. There was little health or happiness to be found in the wretched insanitary novels most employers grudgingly provided, nor in the constant presence of children hollow-eyed and gaunt from lack of food. There could be nothing industrious about men who knew that however hard and long they worked, they could never earn enough to give their families any hope of anything better.

. The society which imposed such wretchedness on the labouring majority was dedicated to the ideal of an unchanging social structure which locked each man security in his place. In this context, nothing frightened the wealthy, favoured classes more than a trades union. Though perfectly legal since 1824, the idea of workers combining for concerted action stirred fears which, in some quarters, reached pathological proportions. At the same time, nothing about trades unions was more disturbing than ritual oath-taking of the sort which took place in the Tolpuddle cottage in 1833.

It was the administering of these oaths, cited as illegal under the 1797 Mutiny Act, which led to the arrest on 24 February 1834 of George and James Loveless, Thomas and John Stanfield, James Hammett and James Brine. Just over three weeks later, on 17 March, these six men appeared in court at Dorchester to find the full vengeance of government and law awaiting them.

Mr. Baron Williams, the trial judge, was openly hostile and informed a carefully chosen jury before the proceedings began that trades unions and everything about them were evil. Against this armament, the defence that the Tolpuddle six had been seeking only to provide a fund for workers to draw on in time of need had a hopeless ring about it. After a two-day trial, at which John Lock and Edward Legg gave evidence against them, the six accused were found guilty and sentenced to seven years' transportation to Australia. This punishment, second in severity only to death, was normally reserved for the worse and most debauched of criminals.

Fortunately, however, the British sense of fair play, which often operates after an event which originally had full popular support, provoked protests all over the country even before the Tolpuddle six had set sail for Australia in filthy convict ships shackled to thieves and murderers.The objections came not only from trade unionists and radical opponents of the government whose motives were obvious, but from ordinary citizens and even from government supporters and enemies of the trades unions. What united these disparate elements was the conviction that indictment and trial had been unjust and the sentences needlessly severe.

Soon, petitions pleading for mercy were pouring into Parliament. Some protesters appealed directly to King William IV or the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, while thousands attended noisy and emotional protest meetings. The government and Lord Melbourne in particular, reacted at first with indifference, hoping the furore would gradually die down. However, it remained vociferously alive and in 1835, after the election of a new government, Melbourne, now Prime Minister, was obliged to sanction the move he had shirked as Home Secretary.

On 14 March 1836, Melbourne's successor, the enlightened and liberal-minded Lord John Russell announced to Parliament that free pardons had been granted to all six men. Due to distance and delay in Australia, George Loveless did not return to England until 13 June 1837. James Loveless, James Brine and Thomas and John Stanfield came home on 16 March 1838 and James Hammett some time in August 1839. To make amends to those who were soon dubbed the Tolpuddle Martyrs, farms had been purchased for them in Essex from a public fund, the Dorchester Labourers' Farm Tribute. However, these brought them neither peace nor satisfaction. Mud had been slung and it stuck.

The neighbours were antagonistic, regarding the Tolpuddle six as convicts, indelibly stamped with the taint of a criminal past. More importantly, their names sprang first to reactionary minds whenever some trade union activity or hint of unrest occurred in the vicinity.Worse still, the Loveless family were linked to the latest threat to the 'ideal' unchanging society, the Chartist Movement which sought to secure the right to vote for every man, however humble. In 1844, disgusted with the notoriety and the pointing fingers, all the men except James Hammett emigrated to Canada.

Trade unionists might have regarded them as martyrs - they still do - but the protests which gained them reprieve had not implied a shift in basic thinking. Society remained as stratified as ever, and Britain's overprivileged classes, replete with most of its wealth and all its power, still had no intention of sharing either with those they contemptuously termed the 'lower orders'. In 1844, another 75 years of hard, painful effort lay ahead of those who, like the men of Tolpuddle, sought to force upon society a liberal change of heart.

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