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13 November 2014

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You are in: Dorset > History > Local History > The Tolpuddle Martyrs

Tolpuddle men on trial in Dorchester's old court

Mock ups of the men in the dock

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

This year is the 175th anniversary of when six Dorset farm labourers were sent to an Australian penal colony, but their 'crimes' helped change the face of employment rights for generations to come - and it all began in the small village of Tolpuddle.

In 1834, six farm labourers from Tolpuddle were arrested. They were members of a 'friendly society' - a forerunner to a trade union.

And, in a time of falling wages, they each swore a secret oath to help protect their income.

An average wage for a farm labourer was 10 shillings a week, but the Tolpuddle men had seen theirs drop as low as 7 shillings a week, with the threat of more cuts.

Swearing an oath was illegal, so, acting on a tip off from land owners worried about possible industrial unrest, they were arrested and brought to Dorchester to stand trial.

But the trial wasn't seen to be just.

A jury of farmers

They were tried before an all-male 12 jury.

The jury men were farmers, and the employers of the labourers under trial. The farmers themselves rented their land from the gentry - but it was the gentry who had opposed the idea of the labourers uniting.

The men on trial stuck to their view. Their leader was George Loveless, and in addressing the judge and jury, he wrote:

"My lord, if we had violated any law it was not done intentionally. We were uniting together to save ourselves, our wives and families from starvation."

Found guilty

Even so, after a two day trial, Judge Baron Williams found them guilty: "The safety of the country was at stake", he said.

They were sentenced to seven years in a penal colony in Australia, where they would have been sold on as slaves.

It was the maximum sentence they could have had. They had been made an example of.

News spread from the press gallery

But the Old Crown Court in Dorchester where the trial was held was one of the first in the country to have a press gallery. And because of this, news of the conviction spread nationwide.

Other members of friendly societies saw the events in Dorchester as a possible threat to their own societies.

Huge demonstrations were organised and the authorities were shocked at the scope of the nationwide protest.

And then eventually, after a change in Home Secretary, the six men were given a complete pardon, and four years later they returned to England.

Only one of the men, George Hammet, returned to live in Dorset. He is buried in Tolpuddle.

The others emigrated to Canada with their families.

But it was the courageous actions of these men that helped pave the way, across the world, for the creation of trade unions, and the protection of employees' rights.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival is on Friday 17 - 19 July 2009

last updated: 15/07/2009 at 13:59
created: 10/07/2008

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Gregorio Humperdick
this is important and it should be studied in schools more frequently

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