To the north-east of Dorchester the River Piddle meanders, giving its name to several villages, including Tolpuddle, a pleasant village, which has been bypassed, enabling through traffic to avoid it. Normally an annual Festival takes place in Tolpuddle, when it becomes busy, but this year it has been cancelled. The Festival commemorates the story of six local men who lived there in the 1830s.
The story began after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 when soldiers were no longer required and therefore were looking for work. At the same time grain prices were low, resulting in farmers facing ruin. The Government introduced the Corn Laws aiming to help farmers, but the result was that the price of bread increased. Farmers kept labourers’ wages low and introduced threshing machines to aid productivity, which reduced the number of workers. This led to some frustrated labourers vandalising these machines, setting fire to ricks and throwing stones through farm windows. These actions commenced in Kent and spread across the land. The men involved were called “machine wreckers”.
Mary Frampton kept a Journal in 1830 describing her concerns about the rioters. She corresponded with another Dorset Diarist, Fanny Burney, who commiserated with her about her worries about the rioters. Mary Frampton had a brother, Squire James Frampton, who was very outspoken against the rioters.
In Tolpuddle labourer George Loveless, who was also a Methodist lay preacher, grew concerned when farmers promised they would raise wages to 10s a week, but in fact reduced them to 8s. When wages were dropped again to 7s a week, he decided to act. A meeting was held in a cottage lived in by Loveless’s brother-in-law, Thomas Standfield. About 40 labourers agreed to form a “Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers”. The society was to be the Grand Lodge of other groups in Dorset, with a secret password “Either Hand or Heart”. Their rules included that they should withhold labour if a master reduced wages or “stood off” a man for belonging to a union. Unfortunately they agreed to initiate new members by a ritual in which recruits were blindfolded, shown a picture of a skeleton and had to kiss the Bible and swear an oath not to reveal activities or membership of the society. Perhaps this ritual was a parody of the Masonic tradition.
Early in 1834 Squire James Frampton was given information by another labourer, Edward Legg, about the oath taking. Frampton took this very seriously and arranged for the six ringleaders to be brought to trial. An Act of Parliament in 1797 decreed that any trade unionist administering a secret oath was infringing the law. The Tolpuddle labourers were unaware of this when they took their oaths, as they later protested at their trial charged with breaking the 1797 Act, which was a felony punishable by a maximum of 7 years transportation.
The six were George Loveless (age 37), James (brother, 25), Thomas Standfield (brother-in-law, 44), John Stanfield (son of Thomas, 21), James Brine (20) and James Hammet (22) who have become known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
They appeared for trial at Dorchester Crown Court on 17th March 1834 before a newly appointed judge, Williams, who did nothing to help them. The judge was alarmed by the growth of rebellion and trade unionism, as was the Whig government, and in his summing up he told the jury of 11 yeomen and one farmer that if trade unions continued they would “ruin masters, cause stagnation in trade and destroy property”. The jury returned a verdict of “Guilty” in twenty minutes. The judge admitted that the accused had been previously of good character, but he imposed the maximum sentence of seven years transportation.
Soon protests were made against the sentence, in the national newspapers of the time. (However despite national petitions and a large public demonstration in London, the government would not reduce or cancel the sentences). All six convicts were sent, in chains, to join convict ships to Australia, to an even harsher life.
George Loveless was sent to Tasmania for a week in a chain gang, road making. Then he was transferred to become a shepherd and stock keeper at a government farm, which was a little better, but still harsh, sleeping in a hut, with a leaking roof and five beds for eight men.
The five other labourers were shipped to New South Wales and were marched in chains through the Sydney streets and then allocated to different farms.
James Brine had a very hard time as he had to walk thirty miles alone to his allocated farm. En route his belongings were pilfered by thieves who stole his belongings, including the bedding, blanket, shoes, new breeches and some money with which he had been provided. He reported to the farmer he had been allocated to, but the man refused to believe his story and abused him as “one of those Dorset machine-breakers”. Consequently James had to work for six months without boots. When digging post holes he found a piece of hoop-iron and tied this to one foot to help take the hurt of the spade.
Thomas Standfield, the oldest of the labourers was set to work as a shepherd, and suffered terribly working day and night at lambing time. His son, John, was allowed to visit him by his more considerate farmer several times as his farm was only a few miles away and said that his father was “a dreadful spectacle, covered with sores from head to foot and weak and helpless as a child”.
In April 1834 a large demonstration assembled at Copenhagen Fields near Kings Cross in London. They marched to Whitehall and delivered a petition to the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne. However the Government would not cancel the sentences.
Finally in March 1836, after two years of petitions and lobbying from sympathisers, a new Home Secretary, Lord John Russell granted a free pardon to all six men. There were difficulties of communication and bureaucratic delays. George Loveless arrived back in England in June 1837. Nine months later four of the others arrived back. The last man, James Hammett, was not home until August 1839, over three years after the pardon was granted. He had not been at the oath swearing ceremony, but had been arrested in mistake for his brother John.
James Hammett was the only one of the six who settled back in Tolpuddle. He died in the Dorchester Workhouse in 1891, aged 79. He is buried in Tolpuddle churchyard and has a headstone carved by Eric Gill which reads “Tolpuddle Martyr: Pioneer of Trades Unionism: Champion of Freedom”. At the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival a wreath is laid on his grave every year.
The other five eventually migrated to Ontario, Canada and of these John Standfield became a successful hotelier and for a time became reeve (mayor) of East London, there.
Some of the information produced here came from A History of Dorset by Cecil Cullingford. The old Dorset County Court in Dorchester High West Street has been renovated as the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum and some of the cells are available to view, with relative information.
So this is the story of the Tolpuddle Six, or Martyrs’ and their eventual release and pardon and explains why normally there is an annual Festival, with a procession through the village, live music, and various stalls.
This year the Festival was organised as an online event over the middle weekend in July, with the following comment: “Tolpuddle .. represents the value of Solidarity, of joining together for the common good, something we all need to see us through this present crisis”
Tolpuddle is a pleasant village. I have a happy memory of visiting with my wife, daughter and son-in-law and sitting on a convenient seat under a shady tree, quietly, but not on a Festival weekend.
Cecil Amor, Hon President of Bridport History Society.