The Tolpuddle Martyrs & history: work still in progress

In Uncategorized on July 12, 2016 by kmflett


Over the last few years at the time of the annual Tolpuddle Festival Ive taken a break from my usual researches in the archives (which centre on the period after Tolpuddle) to take a look at various issues and angles which may help to explain a bit further what Tolpuddle was about and what it came to mean.

2017 is no different and Ive been working on what the link between Tolpuddle and Jeremy Corbyn might be. There is one, and all will be revealed later in the week

There are some who claim that Tolpuddle is primarily an historical ‘myth’ an event used by later generations to promote, for example, solidarity. There are worse things, but in reality Tolpuddle had a significant impact at the time in the 1830s and afterwards.

It might be thought that since Tolpuddle took place 182 years ago there really isnt much new that can be said about it. Of course the detail of the actual events is a matter of historical record and the Martyrs Museum in Tolpuddle itself does an excellent job of making sure they are available.

But understanding why Tolpuddle happened, why it happened in the way that it did, and the impact that it had is much more complex. These are not things to which there are definitive answers but in questioning and researching the matter not only can a little more light be thrown on the Martyrs themselves but some important thoughts for labour movement activists today can arise. 

There is a good deal of original material about the Martyrs available. Understanding what it means, and what it might tell us today, is something, in a modest way, I’ve been working on with the pieces below.

Keith Flett July 11th 2016

(2011)The puzzle of Captain Swing & Tolpuddle


Captain Swing was a wave of rural revolt over wages and new technology that swept through parts of the English countryside in the last months of 1830. The classic study by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude now belongs to a previous generation of labour historians. Fortunately new research on Swing is being done with a recent issue of Southern History devoted to it.

Some of the new research questions whether there was an overarching theme to the Swing revolt or whether it was perhaps not more focused on local grievances.

Yet patterns of class and political outlook can still be discerned, a point not controversial to Hobsbawm and Rude but perhaps more so to some of the new generation of Swing historians.

A starting point is to ask why while Swing protests were a feature of the Dorset countryside in the last months of 1830, Tolpuddle is the only real example of trade union organisation developing in an area impacted by Swing.

Swing and Tolpuddle are rarely mentioned in the same historical context, though many of the demands of Swing, as Hobsbawm and Rude noted, for example around wage levels, were ones which would come to be seen as classic ‘trade union issues’

Tolpuddle is the only example of note of agricultural trade unionism in the 1830s, and it was not until the 1870s that the National Union of Agricultural Labourers led by Joseph Arch became a feature of the rural scene.

Historians have argued that the repression of Swing was so draconian in many areas- a few were executed and more were transported to Australia-that it was a generation before people felt confident to organise again.

57 ‘Swing’ prisoners including several women were tried at Dorchester. 27 were found guilty. Hobsbawm and Rude note that the sentences in such cases were ‘quite remarkably severe’ in a few cases leading to execution and in 481 instances nationally transportation to Australia.

An Act of November 1830 allowed Beer Houses to open legally. It was known to local ruling classes that these drinking establishments allowed radicals to gather and discuss politics. They may have had some role in Swing. The impact of drink on activity being what it was they were left alone. At Tolpuddle the labourers met not in a pub but in a Methodist meeting house. Sober and primed with a subversive religious mindset, the State felt it had to act.

A final puzzle is how Swing and then Tolpuddle appeared in Dorset.

Local circumstances can produce grievances and actions about them, but the appearance of Swing protests at Bere Regis in November 1830, at exactly the same time as Swing protests elsewhere in the country suggests some co-ordination.

There were regular coaches from London to Dorchester that would have stopped at numerous points on the way. These brought newspapers with news of developments elsewhere, and people who could spread news by word of mouth for those who were not literate.

The same applies to the Tolpuddle men, who organised against the backdrop of increasing trade union organisation in London of which they must have heard, or, since Methodism may have required some ability to grasp religious texts, read.

It may be argued that as with Swing the transportation of the Martyrs was enough to deter others.

However Swing type protests continued in Dorset throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Meanwhile an interesting and rather overlooked study by Charlesworth also draws attention to one reason why Tolpuddle was not repeated. From the 1840s London coaches were replaced by trains which stopped at far fewer places and provided less opportunity for interaction with rural populations.

 (2012) Tolpuddle and the Unstamped: Solidarity & Ideas

Within weeks of the sentence of transportation passed on the Tolpuddle Martyrs at Dorchester in March 1834 there was a demonstration of over a hundred thousand people on Copenhagen Fields in London, while 40,000 gathered in Newcastle and there was a large public meeting in Manchester.

Yet this was a time before the telephone, let alone the mobile phone. E-mail, Facebook and Twitter were still over 150 years from being tools for activists. Even the telegraph was not yet in use.

How did activists, let alone the many ordinary workers who attended such gatherings find out about the fate of those at Tolpuddle?

Partly as I have mentioned previously news spread through the old coaching routes that were by the 1830s soon to be overtaken by the railways.

However a new specifically working class press also played an important role.

Establishing quite how much of a role still requires detailed and painstaking historical research. Literacy levels amongst the newly developed working class were patchy in the 1830s and distribution networks for radical papers outside of major centres uncertain.

Papers like Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian had a circulation of over 10,000 in the early 1830s- 2500 copies were required to be sold for the paper to break even- and its readership- much beyond the circulation figure-was more than that and as EP Thompson noted overwhelmingly working class.

The Poor Man’s Guardian was not a stamped paper although it carried news stories and so was an illegal publication. Publishers, journalists and vendors could be and were arrested and jailed for their involvement with such papers.

The Six Acts of 1819 had required a 4p stamp for newspapers meaning that few could retail for less than 7p. The Unstamped press sold for a penny.

By the early 1830s the National Union of the Working Classes had a network of branches and agencies for papers like the Poor Man’s Guardian. Over 740 vendors of the Unstamped appeared in Court between 1831-6 when the level of Stamp Duty was significantly decreased.

On 29th March 1834 the Poor Man’s Guardian reported a London meeting to petition for the remission of the Martyrs sentences but noted that ‘petitioning Parliament is fast getting out of fashion’

On 5th April 1834 the paper reported that the King had confirmed the sentence and it argued that universal suffrage was needed to address such injustice.

The following week the Martyrs made the front page as the 12th April edition argued that their case had ‘roused the entire country’

Subsequent issues of the Poor Man’s Guardian report the great meeting in Newcastle [19th April] and the Copenhagen Fields demonstration in London [26th April]

By May 10th the paper was reporting a West Yorkshire deputation to Lord Melbourne which called again for remission of the Martyrs sentences.

The Poor Man’s Guardian was a paper of relatively few pages and its coverage of the Martyrs case and protest at it would have reached a significant working class audience.

However while reporting trade union struggles the paper preferred a strategy of winning the vote to workplace organisation.

Interestingly when a network of its distribution agencies is checked it can be seen that the paper reached Frome and Salisbury in the south-west but it did not have an agent in Dorchester.

In seeking to understand why the Tolpuddle Martyrs chose the road of trade union organisation over petitioning for the vote- both strategies current in the early 1830s- the influence, or otherwise, of the Unstamped Press may well have been a significant factor.

The Unstamped press could provide publicity to struggles like those of the Martyrs and hence help to stimulate solidarity. It could also influence by its Editorial direction the kind of ideas that helped to form the nature and character of the struggle and solidarity. It is a complex historical mosaic which would still repay further research on the extent and influence of the Unstamped press

(2013) From Tolpuddle to Joseph Arch: traditions of organising

The view of industrial organised labour in the nineteenth century was that agricultural workers- often unskilled- were hard to organise. Hence the solidarity offered on the occasions when they did such as Tolpuddle in the 1830s and later when Joseph Arch led the ‘revolt in the field’ in the 1870s.

This begs a question. What happened to agricultural workers organisation in Dorset, probably the most rural English County, from the mid-1830s to the 1870s? Was it simply broken, or were their attempts to organise?

In the early twenty-first century in the UK we are used to union organisations with a long and continuous history. But this is far from the only reality, both historically in Britain and around the world today.

The rise of Arch’s agricultural workers union in the 1870s rested on two issues.

Firstly the resolution of some legal framework for trade union activity between 1869-71. Secondly the successful battles by urban workers for the nine hour day. The impact on agricultural workers in a rural area like Tolpuddle can be imagined.

The Martyrs had been transported for trying to organise a union. Now it was legal to do so, so that fate was off the agenda. Secondly there was evidence that organising brought actual improvements in working conditions.

By the 1870s the rural world was changing. The railway had appeared in Dorset for example. Not only did it offer easier travel and access to the world, it also became an alternative source of employment. On the railways though, as in agriculture, battles for union organisation were hard fought.

Cheap newspapers provided new perspectives on the world and there were possibilities of getting out of the low wage culture of Tolpuddle altogether. Dorset wages were historically some of the lowest in the country. Falling wages had been one of the concerns of the Martyrs and was the spur for sporadic Chartist attempts at organising in the area in the 1830s. A report in 1844 had reported that wages in the County were ‘so low that they cannot fall, their normal state is one of the deepest privation’. Even by 1860-1 Dorset was still near to the bottom of the agricultural wages league table, the weekly wage being 9s 5d. This in a County were just nine people owned 10,000 acres each of land in 1873.

Such circumstances are rarely the most fruitful basis for union organisation, workers being too concerned just simply to labour to live.

The Times on 19th December 1873 reported that Joseph Arch had spoken in Dorchester together with a Colonel Denison. The Colonel was the Emigration representative of the Government of Ontario.

The idea was that the most effective way to improve conditions for agricultural workers was to reduce the supply by some emigrating. The Union’s policy was to assist workers to move out of areas like Tolpuddle and by January 1874 7-800 had done so.

The Union was able to effectively organise in areas like Tolpuddle but while there is evidence that thousands signed up, membership was not stable, and nor was support for union activity. In the June 1874 strike just 23 union members received strike pay in Dorset, though the eviction of some in Milborne St Andrew nearby to Tolpuddle from tied housing got significant press coverage.

While the possibility of continuous workers organisation was tough in an area like Tolpuddle, the impulse to it and the memory of it remained. So for example ion March 1875 on the 41st anniversary of the Martyrs there was a presentation to James Hammett. An address talked of the ‘days of oppression’ that were not yet over


(2014)Tolpuddle & Oaths: Why the Martyrs were not guilty

The taking of oaths was a feature of early British trade unionism and indeed a feature of many others of British life too in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

The swearing of oaths was often about loyalty and certainly about secrecy- Taisez Vous in the French- keeping silent about what you knew.

In a world where trade unions had no legal protection, for example for their funds, and often had craft trade secrets to keep, trying to ensure that members stayed firmly in the fold was an essential task and the oath played a part in that.

It was perhaps the taking oaths that more than anything disturbed the ruling class and it was certainly a central feature of the Tolpuddle Martyrs case.

The Martyrs were prosecuted under a 1797 Act which made the taking of oaths illegal. It did not, and could not, apply to all oaths. After the ruling class itself had institutions such as the Freemasons and Orange Order that relied on oaths as a central feature of membership. Rather it depended on the precise wording of the oath and whether the purpose of the meeting where the oath was taken was legal or illegal.

With the repeal of the anti-union Combination Laws in 1825 the Tolpuddle meeting was legal. No details of the precise oath taken have survived, which is not surprising, since only fragments of it were ever produced as evidence in the Dorchester Court Room.

It is thought that the oath taken was not borrowed either from Yorkshire trade unions, where such things were common, or from the Grand National Consolidate Trade Union, whose activities provided the wider context for the Martyrs meeting. Rather it was constructed by George Loveless himself and was likely to have been very much trade union focused. In all probability it was not illegal either.

In a 1966 article W H Oliver argues that after the conviction of the Martyrs Government law officers reviewed the outcome and themselves agreed that the verdict was probably unsafe.

Causing concern to employers by organising a trade union meeting and taking an oath of membership may have annoyed and perhaps frightened employers but it was not illegal.

However the Tolpuddle verdict while very likely unsafe in terms of the existing law did serve a purpose to employers. Many trade unions who employed oaths looked again at whether they would continue to use them.

Oliver suggests that the unsafeness of the verdict was one reason why the campaign for a pardon for the Martyrs and their return to England was successful in a relatively short period of time.


The point is underlined by one of the other significant union disputes of the moment, the Derby lock-out of 1833-4. Thousands of workers were out on strike for some months, and the reason was not a wage demand but because they had joined a trade union. Again it was particularly the taking of an oath of membership that caused concern to employers. No legal action was taken.

Not all in the early labour movement were happy with oath taking.

Robert Owen was opposed to it but from within the movement itself James Morrison, Editor of the Pioneer, a radical paper very much associated with the GNCTU was also against it. He saw oaths as part of a reactionary past.

After all building a democratic, open, mass working class movement, could hardly rest on the taking of secret oaths. The Chartists certainly did not employ such a device. Rather they used membership cards and rules to build organisation.

(2015)How and why the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs was heard

According to some new research on Tolpuddle by revisionist historian Carl Griffin the reason why the TUC has been able to promote what he regards as the ‘mythology’ of the Dorset labourers story- his point is that they were far from exceptional in being pursued by the authorities for trade union activity in the rural West of England- is because George Loveless was a literate man and wrote down his experiences while others did not.

Hence the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs was able to be marked, particularly after the centenary year in 1834, while others whose stories remained largely unknown, detailed only in Court records, were left to the enormous condescension of posterity.

Griffin does have a point, made 50 years ago by EP Thompson in the Making of the English Working Class. Namely that while the Martyrs are, rightly, remembered numbers of others, some of whom were hung are barely mentioned in the historical record. It is not the case of the Tolpuddle men that is exceptional but the way it has been kept in the public mind on this reading.

Griffin argues that the family relations of the Tolpuddle men, brothers worked in the unionised flax industry in Bridport, or had links to trade union organisation and ideas in metropolitan centres like London and Leeds, meant that they were part of a wider movement.

Whether or not the case of the Tolpuddle union was exceptional, the movement that was built after they were sentenced to be transported, and the fact that they were able in due course to return, was something that had not been seen before. It relied on a network of solidarity, whether a literal or virtual brotherhood and sisterhood.

Griffin does not dwell on this point but it is an important one.

The case of Tolpuddle was taken up by Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trade Union as an issue to organise around and agitate about.

Demonstrations were held, meetings called, solidarity financial collections made, and Parliament was petitioned.

Here we move beyond Griffin’s critique of the Tolpuddle narrative and into a very contemporary discussion.

The Martyrs supporters did not have a political party to campaign for them- the Chartists formed the world’s first working class political party in 1841- nor did they have a helpful framework of laws with which to pursue the case.

The decision to prosecute and transport the Martyrs for the swearing of oaths was of doubtful legality but no Employment Acts were broken in doing so. They did not exist.

Rather the campaign for the Martyrs had to rely on what was known in the nineteenth century as ‘pressure from without’.

That is the trade union campaign had to exert pressure by demonstrations and meetings and they also had to rely to some extent on some friendly radical middle class MPs to reflect these in the House of Commons.

Of course it could not be as good as directly elected working class representatives making points directly in Parliament. But it was nevertheless a strategy that worked.

The historical point was that while the strategy of relying on what were known as ‘gentleman leaders’ is not ideal, it was something that reflected the realities of the time and it was rooted in early working class organisation and politics.

Several radical MPs such as William Cobbett, who was a Tory, took up the Martyrs cause in Parliament. In particular it was pressed by Thomas Wakley, the MP who also founded the Lancet medical journal.

The Parliamentary pressure to pardon the Martyrs would not have taken place without working-class organisation by early trade unionists, but the fact that it did underlined that when the labour movement has a cause and a point to make it will be heard, come what may


One Response to “The Tolpuddle Martyrs & history: work still in progress”

  1. I have links to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Monmouth rebellion, the Turbary encroachment and enclosure act riots and the Magna Carta in my family history book called TURNER TREES by Keith Pott Turner.

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