In the Dorset town of Tolpuddle there is celebrated each year a festival to commemorate the sacrifices made by 6 farm labourers whose courageous stand against their bosses is often credited with the birth of the English trade union movement. Their stories are similar in many ways to that of their Irish counterparts although a few decades would pass before the Irish farm labourers would feel confident and strong enough to take on the landlord class.
In 1831/32 there was a general call amongst the English working classes for an increase in wages and the labouring men of Tolpuddle successfully negotiated, or so they had believed, a wage of 10 shillings per week. The agreement came to nought when the farmers reduced the wages, initially to 9 shillings, then 8 shillings and finally 7 shillings, threatening to reduce it even lower to 6 shillings per week. The men agreed to form what they called an Agricultural Labourers Friendly Society but was in affect a trade union in which each member took an oath. It was the taking of the oath which led to their downfall, oath taking being a crime punishable by transportation. Six Tolpuddle villagers were arrested and tried at nearby Dorchester Crown Court on the charge of administering and being bound by secret and unlawful oaths under an act passed in 1797. This act had been passed to deal specifically with the naval mutiny of that year but it was now used by the landlords of Dorset to entrap and punish their farm labourers.
It is interesting to note that 5 of the 6 charged were practising Methodist, 3 of them being lay Methodist preachers. Their leader was George Loveless, a well known local preacher aged 37 years, a married man with 3 small children. His brother James was 25 years old, had a wife and 2 children who was also a lay Methodist preacher. Thomas Standfield another local preacher was aged 44 years and the oldest of those charged. He was married to a sister of the Loveless brothers and had 6 children. Another man charged was John Standfield aged 21 years while James Brine, the youngest at 20 years was the only non-Methodist in the group. James Hammett another lay preacher aged 22 and married with one child was the sixth member.
Packed juries so familiar in the Irish legal system of the 19th century were also a common enough feature of English law enforcement and before a packed jury and a hostile Judge the inevitable verdict was obtained. All were found guilty and sentenced to 7 years transportation and within a month or so they were on convict ships sailing from Portsmouth destined for New South Wales and Van Diemens land. No doubt their fellow passengers included many Irish men and women who for a wide ranging series of petty offences suffered the same faith as the Tolpuddle men – 7 years transportation. Their conviction caused protests throughout England and the Government were forced to give the Tolpuddle farm labourers, by now in Australia and Van Diemens land, a free pardon after a period of two years.
They were allowed to return to England where they remained for some time before 5 of them emigrated to Canada. James Hammett alone remained on in Tolpuddle where he died in the local workhouse in 1891.
The men from Tolpuddle have been honoured as martyrs for trade unionism because their trial and punishment, no different than that suffered by many others, came at a time when trade unionism was finally emerging as a powerful antidote to the influence of the landlord and ruling classes. The cause of the Tolpuddle martyrs was seen as a defence of the right of the working man to freely and legally combine and form trade unions. The Tolpuddle martyrs were then and remain today symbols of a struggle which was to be played out through the length and breadth of England, Scotland and Wales and would somewhat belatedly cross the Irish sea to empower their Irish counterparts in their uneven struggle against poverty and deprivation.