By ADRIAN WILTSHIRE
Five of the Tolpuddle Martyrs: James Brine, Thomas Stanfield, John Stanfield, James Loveless and George Loveless
IT IS the 1800's and large sections of Britain's working folk are being drawn to the industrial centres that emerged after the Industrial Revolution. Many had tried to resist the victory of 'machine over man'. In riots, factories and mills were occupied and new machinery was destroyed. But, boss and machine were united, the Luddites had lost the fight. Workers in these industrial towns found comradeship, amongst each other, as they shared the same fate, a miserable existence of over-crowding, poverty and squalor from which only death could release them.
Many Trade Union leaders had been imprisoned because the ruling Establishment feared a revolution similar to that in France. William Pitt, Prime Minister and William Wilberforce who had both been instrumental in the abolition of the Black slave trade were now instrumental in introducing the Combination Act. This act made it illegal for British Workers to organise themselves in Trade Unions. Many former unions continued to exist under the guise of Friendly Societies: they used their subscriptions to help members who were out of work, ill or too old to work. Due to mass resistance to the Combination Act, the ruling Establishment was forced to repeal it, but strike action was outlawed.
Life for their country cousins was no better. Agricultural workers were forced to work a fourteen hour day with a seven mile trek there and back. A pitiful wage was often reduced by deductions for food and transport. Breakfast consisted of flour with a little butter and water added. He took with him to the field a piece of bread to eat at mid-day. He returned home to his family who were forced to live in one room ten feet square with a single window fifteen inches square. The table is set for a supper of a few potatoes and a little bacon, as they are better off than most.
From this background came a small group of farm labourers who decided to form a branch of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union (G.N.C.T.U) at Tolpuddle in Dorset. The G.N.C.T.U. had been set up by Robert Owen, a self-made man, who saw the only hope for Workers to have any influence over their own destiny, was to unite in one giant union. Many employers saw this as a real threat and reacted vigorously with lock-outs and sackings. Many presented their employees with the 'document', a paper declaring that they were not members of a union, which if they refused to sign would mean their dismissal.
Warning notices, like that above, threatened workers considering joining a Trade Union
An informer told magistrates about the plan to set up a G.N.C.T.U. branch and on Monday, 17th March, 1834 six labourers were arrayed in the dock, close cropped like criminals and charged with taking an illegal oath. When men joined a union they took an oath of initiation, and the Dorsetshire magistrages decided this was illegal.
Before sentence was declared thay were asked if they had anything to say. George Loveless, leader of the six, wrote on a piece of paper:
"My Lord, if we have violated any law, it was not done intentionally, we have injured no man's reputation, character, person or property, we were uniting ourselves, our wives and our children, from utter degradation and starvation."
Judgement was deferred for two days, until March 19th. The six men were again brought to the bar of the court. They were found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation to Tasmania. The magistrates made it clear they were being punished as an example to others and to suppress Trade Unionism.
Public outcry at the trial and sentence was vigorous. It was noted that Freemasons, who did administer 'illegal oaths' were not proceeded against! Robert Owen, himself, headed a national campaign to secure a pardon, but Melbourne, the Home Secretary, refused to be moved and ordered the military and newly-formed Metropolitan Police to suppress the masses. Owen's campaign failed and the G.N.C.T.U. collapsed due to Establishment repression. However, continued protests from radical lawyers and certain M.P.'s led to the 'Tolpuddle Martyrs' receiving a pardon in 1836 ― although the Government did not tell the men in Tasmania of this. Loveless accidentally read about the pardon in a newspaper which came out to Tasmania. In 1839, the men came home to a heroes welcome from the British people. Small farms were purchased for them from a public fund that had been launched on their behalf by union leaders.
On this, the 150th anniversary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, British workers would do well to remember the sacrifices that were made to see ordinary working folk given the right to organise. It was the remarkable bravery of certain individuals, and a concerted will to win, that gained us these victories. Today we must recognise that if these gains are not to be lost we must again take up the challenge, presented by the ruling Establishment and show that the warrior blood of our forefathers still courses through our veins.