Who Were the Tolpuddle Martyrs?
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of farm laborers in Dorset, England, who were punished by transportation to Australia because they formed a trade union. Their trial in 1834 is an important chapter in the history of the trade union movement.
In the second quarter of the 19th Century poverty was widespread in England and the distress of farm workers was so great that many were driven into open rebellion. Violent demonstrations, such as the burning of hayricks and the destruction of machinery, were met with violent reprisals.
Nine men were hanged, nearly 500 deported and others imprisoned. For a time, laborers were silenced but, learning of the trade unions in the towns, they began to organize their own. At first they were successful and wages were raised from seven to ten shillings a week.
At the village of Tolpuddle, near Dorchester, George Loveless with his brother James and four others, James, Brine, Thomas Stanfield, his son John, and James Hammett, formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Laborers. Loveless was a good organizer and the progress of his society alarmed employers, who, however, felt unable to act against the members because trade unions were legal.
Eventually an excuse was found in the oath of secrecy which the men had sworn for reasons of security on joining the society. The six leaders were arrested in February 1834 under an Act of 1797 that said certain types of oath were criminal. Although law abiding men, they were sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.
Groups such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs would often use a skeleton painting as part of their initiation process. The newest member would be blindfolded and made to swear a secret oath of allegiance. The blindfold would then be removed and they would be presented with the skeleton painting. This was to warn them of their own mortality but also to remind them of what happens to those who break their promises. An example of this skeleton painting is currently on display at the People’s History Museum, Manchester.
There was a public outcry, but the sentences were not remitted until March, 1836. The laborers subsequently returned to England, but later George Loveless and others emigrated to Canada. Despite this setback to the trade unions, the public sympathy aroused by the case proved an inspiration and a help to their later progress. The martyrdom of the Tolpuddle pioneers had not been in vain.