[Tolpuddle Martyrs] The Ministers and their Cronies off to Botany Bay, and the Dorchester Men Returning #2011-0114
Woodcut print depicting a group of six unionists known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who were exiled to Australia in 1834.
A Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers was formed in the small Dorchester Village of Tolpuddle in 1833. Its leader was George Loveless, a Methodist lay preacher and labourer, who had been influenced by activists from the new Grand National Consolidated Trades Union of Robert Owen to choose trade union activism rather than agrarian uprising (the Swing movement) in the face of worsening economic conditions for agricultural labourers in southern England. Loveless and his six colleagues assumed that the recent legalisation of trade unions made their society legitimate. However the local magistrate, a wealthy landowner who had been in dispute with Loveless about pay, was determined to break the tiny union. He gained the support of the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, who with the assistance of the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General developed a complex legal strategy to persecute the Friendly Society based on the fact that the unionists had sworn a secret oath of solidarity. Legislation dating from an earlier period of unrest made it illegal for members of societies to swear secret oaths if they were not legally required, and put them within reach of the ban of ‘unlawful oaths’ under the Mutiny Act 1797. This Act dealt with naval mutinies and included a penalty of transportation. Weaving these elements together, Loveless and his colleagues were charged with taking an illegal oath, found guilty by juries comprising farmers and relatives of the original complainant and were sentenced to seven years transportation. The Whig government of the day, led by Earl Grey, appeared to have successfully used this small agricultural union as a test case to significantly harm the newly emerging trade unions.
In the long run, however, the government’s strategy completely failed. Loveless could not be tarred with the ‘Captain Swing’ brush, as he had avoided any involvement in the riots and machine-breaking of the previous decade. As Tony Moore comments, ‘whereas the victims of the Swing crackdown were an undifferentiated mass of prisoners, missed in their communities but difficult to conjure with, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were only a handful of individuals with names and biographies who could be easily digested via the newspapers….Not only were most of them of unblemished character with solid work records, they were led by an articulate man who, buoyed by his religious faith, exhibited loyalty and nobility in the face of harsh treatment.’ (Death or Liberty, p. 184) An unprecedented parliamentary and extra-parliamentary campaign led to a government backdown in 1836 and free pardons were awarded. This also occurred because the government’s legal incompetence was revealed; it was belatedly realised that the charges levelled against the Tolpuddle Martyrs could also have been used to indict upper class members of conservative societies such as the Orange Order, as the Mutiny Act exempted only Masonic bodies from its prohibition of secret oaths. Loveless returned home in 1837, after being treated well by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land. His fellow unionists had a much harsher time in New South Wales and, in some cases, were not free to return until late 1837. Several of them, including Loveless, later settled in Upper Canada. They are widely honoured to this day as heroes of the modern trade union movement, men who refused opportunities to escape prosecution by ratting on their mates, and are remembered in trade union museums and histories around the world such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum http://www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/ . In the Australian context Dr H. V. Evatt’s commented in 1937: ‘Oppression and cruelty do not always fail. Indeed, they sometimes succeed beyond the hopes of the oppressors. Unless trade union leaders and members are always prepared to sacrifice their personal interests, their safety or even their life, for the amelioration of the lot of the poor, their elaborate organization may perish overnight…. There was no violence in the Dorchester case save the extreme and horrible violence of the law itself.’ (D. Waterson, ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs 150th Anniversary Memorial Oration’, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, The Hummer, 1984)