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The Tolpuddle Martyrs, 1834

Contemporary illustration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs

In 1834, six agricultural labourers in Dorset tried to resist wage-cutting by forming themselves into a Friendly Society or trade union. They were arrested, tried and transported for taking an illegal oath under the preamble to the 1797 Act intended to prevent mutiny in the Royal Navy. They were not brought back until 1838. George Loveless became a delegate to the Chartist Convention in 1839. Loveless, one of the labourers, wrote this account of events.

In the year 1831-32, there was a general movement of the working classes for an increase of wages, and the labouring men in the parish where I lived [Tolpuddle] gathered together, and met their employers, to ask them for an advance of wages, and they came to a mutual agreement, the masters in Tolpuddle promising to give the men as much for their labour as the other masters in the district. The whole of the men then went to work, and the time that was spent in this affair did not exceed two hours. No language of intimidation or threatening was used on the occasion. Shortly after we learnt that, in almost every place around us, the masters were giving their men money, or money's worth to the amount of ten shillings a week - we expected to be entitled to as much - but no, nine shillings must be our portion. After some months we were reduced to eight shillings per week. This caused great dissatisfaction, and all the labouring men in the village, with the exception of two or three invalids, made application to a neighbouring magistrate...

I was one nominated to appear, and when there we were told that we must work for whatever our employers thought fit to give us, as there was no law to compel masters to give any fixed sum of money to their servants. In vain we remonstrated that an agreement was made... From this time we were reduced to seven shillings per week, and shortly after our employers told us they must lower us to six shillings per week. We consulted together what had better be done, knowing it was impossible to live honestly on such scantly means. I had seen at different times accounts of Trade Societies; I mentioned this, and it was resolved to form a friendly society among the labourers, having sufficiently learned that it would be vain to seek the redress either of employers, magistrates or parsons. I inquired of a brother to get information how to proceed, and shortly after, two delegates from a Trade Society paid us a visit, formed a Friendly Society among the labourers, and gave us directions how to proceed. This was about the latter end of October 1833. On the 9th December, 1833, in the evening, Edward Legg [a labourer], who was witness against us on our trial, came and desired to be admitted into the Society...

Nothing particular occurred from this time until the 21st of February, 1834, when placards were posted up at the most conspicuous places, purporting to be cautions from the magistrates, threatening to punish with seven years' transportation any man who should join the Union. This was the first time that I heard of any law being in existence to forbid such societies. I met with a copy, read it, and put it into my pocket. February the 24th at day break, I arose to go to my usual labour, and had just left my house, when Mr. James Brine, constable of the parish, met me and said, "I have a warrant for you, from the magistrates."

... Accordingly I and my companions walked in company with the constable to Dorchester, about seven miles distant, and were taken into the house of a Mr. Woolaston, magistrate... Legg was called upon to swear to us, and we were instantly sent to prison... In this situation the chaplain of the prison paid us a visit, to pour a volley of instruction in our ears, mixed up, however, in the cup of abuse. After upbraiding us and taunting us with being discontented and idle, and wishing to ruin our masters, he proceeded to tell us that we were better off than our masters, and that government had made use of every possible means for economy and retrenchment to make all comfortable. He inquired if I could point out anything that might be done to increase the comfort of the labourer. I told him I thought I could; and began to assure him that our object was not to ruin the master, but that, for a long time, we had been looking for the head to begin, and relieve the various members down to the feet; but finding it was of no avail, we were thinking of making application to our masters, and for them to make application to their masters, and so up to the head; and as to their being worse off than ourselves, I could not believe it, while I saw them keep such a number of horses for no other purpose than to chase the hare and the fox. And besides I thought gentlemen wearing the clerical livery, like himself, might do with a little less salary. "Is that how you mean to do it?" said he. "That is one way I have been thinking of, Sir." - "I hope the Court will favour you, but I think they will not; for I believe they mean to make an example of you." And saying this he left us. On the 15th March we were taken to the County-hall to await our trial...

As to the trial, I need mention but little; the whole proceedings were characterised by a shameful disregard of justice and decency; the most unfair means were resorted to in order to frame an indictment against us; the Grand Jury appeared to rack heaven and earth to get some clue against us, but in vain; our characters were investigated from our infancy to the then present moment; our masters were inquired of to know if we were not idle, or attended public-houses, or some other fault in us; and much as they were opposed to us, they had common honesty enough to declare that we were good labouring servants, and that they never heard of any complaint against us; and when nothing whatever could be raked together, the unjust and cruel judge, John Williams, ordered us to be tried for mutiny and conspiracy, under an Act 37 Geo. III, Cap. 123, for the suppression of mutiny amongst the marines and seamen, several years ago, at the Nore. The greater part of the evidence against us, on our trial, was put into the mouths of the witnesses by the judge...

I shall not soon forget his address to the jury in summing up the evidence: among other things, he told them, that if such Societies were allowed to exist, it would ruin masters, cause a stagnation in trade, destroy property, - and if they should not find us guilty, he was certain they would forfeit the opinion of the Grand Jury. I thought to myself, there is no danger but we shall be found guilty, as we have a special jury for the purpose, selected from among those who are most unfriendly towards us - the Grand Jury, landowners, the Petty Jury, land-renters. Under such a charge, from such a quarter, self-interest alone would induce them to say, "Guilty." ...

...At the time when so much incendiarism was prevailing in so many parts of the kingdom, a watch was set in our parish for the protection of property in the night, and I and my brothers, among others were chosen to watch some property. Will any reasonable man believe, if we had been rioters, that we should have been so chosen?... But the secret is this: I am from principle, a Dissenter, and by some in Tolpuddle it is considered as the sin of witchcraft; nay, there is no forgiveness for it in this world nor that which is to come; the years 1834-35 are not forgotten, and many a curious tale might be told of men that were persecuted, banished and not allowed to have employ if they entered the Wesleyan Chapel at Tolpuddle...

taken from George Loveless, Victims of Whiggery

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