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Conviction of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, 1834

Jan 12, 2018
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In October 1833, the farm labourer and Methodist lay preacher George Loveless founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers along with five other men in Tolpuddle, Dorset. Their aim was to protest against the lowering of wages for farm labourers brought about by a surplus in labour partly caused by the mechanisation in agriculture. Wages in the area were then seven shillings per week, whereas they demanded a weekly wage of ten shillings.

While the illegality of trade unions had been removed with the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 (although legal union activity was limited the following year), the members of the society had committed the illegal act of swearing an oath. With evidence gathered by a spy and having consulted with the Home Secretary, Viscount Melbourne, the magistrates in Dorchester issued orders for the arrest of the six men on 21st February 1834. Three days later Loveless along with James Brine, James Hammett, James Loveless, John Standfield, and Thomas Standfield were arrested and held in Dorchester gaol to await the spring assizes.

The inexperienced Judge Baron Williams presided over the subsequent two-day trial, which quickly became infamous as a travesty of justice. The foreman of the jury, William Ponsonby MP, was the brother-in-law to the Home Secretary. The jury also included the local landowner James Frampton, his son and his step-brother, as well as a number of the magistrates who had ordered the arrests.

On 19th March 1834, the jury returned a guilty verdict and the six men received sentences of seven years transportation. The subsequent public outcry involving mass meetings and petitions could not prevent the martyr’s departure for Australia in April that year. Nevertheless, the campaign eventually bore fruit when the then home secretary, Lord John Russell, granted conditional pardons in June 1835, followed by full pardons the following year.

The six men found out about their pardons by chance, since the authorities in Australia neglected to inform them. Between January 1837 and August 1839 they all returned home to a heroes welcome. Yet, they were not well received everywhere, as was the case when they took possession of two farms in Essex, which had been purchased for them by London Dorchester Committee that formed to secure their freedom. Hammett returned to Tolpuddle to work in the building trade, while the other five men and their families emigrated to Ontario, Canada.

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