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The Tolpuddle Martyrs

The picture of death, with its grim, gaunt features was six feet high and awesome. It seemed to fill the cramped room of the cottage at Tolpuddle, Dorset, glowering down upon the two initiates who knelt cringing before it. For John Lock and Edward Legg, the sight increased the fears already fostered by the atmosphere of secrecy, and the solemn, white-robed figures of George Loveless and his brother James. 'Remember thine end!' James intoned, pointing to the picture and it was in trembling awareness of it that Legg and lock then took an oath never to reveal anything of the agricultural workers' union they were about to join.

Scenes like this, deliberately designed to appeal to primitive fears and stir deep-rooted superstition, were not uncommon in the forming of trades unions in the 19th century. Intelligent men like George Loveless, founder of the Tolpuddle union in December 1833, disliked such ritual, but it was virtually the only way to impress illiterate workers whose spirits had been withered into apathy by endless labour and poverty. As George Loveless and his fellow unionists knew only too well, a wage that never exceeded 9 shilling a week offered nothing but despair. There was little health or happiness to be found in the wretched insanitary novels most employers grudgingly provided, nor in the constant presence of children hollow-eyed and gaunt from lack of food. There could be nothing industrious about men who knew that however hard and long they worked, they could never earn enough to give their families any hope of anything better.

The society which imposed such wretchedness on the labouring majority was dedicated to the ideal of an unchanging social structure which locked each man securely in his place. In this context, nothing frightened the wealthy, favoured classes more than a trades union. Though perfectly legal since 1824, the idea of workers combining for concerted action stirred fears which, in some quarters, reached pathological proportions. At the same time, nothing about trades unions was more disturbing than ritual oath-taking of the sort which took place in the Tolpuddle cottage in 1833.

It was the administering of these oaths, cited as illegal under the 1797 Mutiny Act, which led to the arrest on 24 February 1834 of George and James Loveless, Thomas and John Stanfield, James Hammett and James Brine. Just over three weeks later, on 17 March, these six men appeared in court at Dorchester to find the full vengeance of government and law awaiting them.

Mr. Baron Williams, the trial judge, was openly hostile and informed a carefully chosen jury before the proceedings began that trades unions and everything about them were evil. Against this armament, the defence that the Tolpuddle six had been seeking only to provide a fund for workers to draw on in time of need had a hopeless ring about it. After a two-day trial, at which John Lock and Edward Legg gave evidence against them, the six accused were found guilty and sentenced to seven years' transportation to Australia. This punishment, second in severity only to death, was normally reserved for the worse and most debauched of criminals.

Fortunately, however, the British sense of fair play, which often operates after an event which originally had full popular support, provoked protests all over the country.

In March 1836, the Government was forced to remit the sentences in the face of public pressure. Only one of the six, James Hammett settled again in Tolpuddle, where he died in 1891. His grave is in the churchyard. Among the others, three emigrated to London, Ontario, Canada, where John Standfield eventually became the Mayor of his district. James Brine married Elizabeth, John Standfield's sister in1839. Their descendents live there today and the name of Tolpuddle is remembered in several local organisations..