The Tolpuddle Martyrs, transported for forming a trade union, 1834
The Meeting of the Tolpuddle Labourers
IN the instance of the riot in Calthorpe Street, reference has been made to a combination or union of the working classes, confederated for the purpose of securing certain political objects. The system of 'Unions', which was commenced in the metropolis and the larger towns of the kingdom, was not, how ever, confined exclusively to those thickly populated districts, nor were the objects of these societies limited to those which were merely of a political nature. In various parts of the country associations were formed with a view of maintaining the prices of labour, and with other objects more especially connected with the social welfare of the community.
The case of the Dorchester labourers is one which has attracted a vast degree of general observation and attention. The evil effects of the system may be collected from the following statement of the charges preferred against them, at the Dorchester assizes, on the 17th of March 1834, and of the facts which were proved in evidence upon their trial.
The names of the prisoners were James Lovelace, George Lovelace, Thomas Stanfield, John Stanfield, James Hammet and James Brine, and they were indicted for 'administering and causing to be administered, and aiding and assisting, and being present at, and consenting to administer, a certain unlawful oath and engagement, purporting to bind the person taking the same not to inform or give evidence against any associate or other person charged with any unlawful combination, and not to reveal or discover any such unlawful combination, or any illegal act done or to be done, and not to discover any illegal oath which might be taken.' Mr Gambler stated that the charge against the prisoners was that on a certain day in December, they, all together, or one of them, administered an unlawful oath to a person of the name of Legg, for the purpose of binding the party to whom it was administered not to disclose any illegal combination which had been formed, and not to inform or give evidence against any person associated with them, and not to reveal any unlawful oath which might be taken. The first part of the charge was that the purport of the oath was to bind the party to obey the orders of a body of men not lawfully constituted. The indictment was framed on an Act of the 37th George III, cap. 128, and his lordship would be aware that the preamble of that act related to seditious meetings, but the enacting part was of a more general nature, including confederacies not formed merely for seditious purposes, but for any illegal purpose whatever. There was an authority which had decided that the enacting part of the statute was not restrained by the preamble, but extended to all societies the object of which was unlawful. One clause of the act related to oaths administered for the purpose of binding a party not to reveal an unlawful combination. The allegation in the indictment was that the prisoners administered an illegal oath to certain persons, binding them not to disclose an illegal confederacy. It would be for them to see whether the facts bore out the conclusion to which he had come, that a combination formed under the circumstances that would be stated, was a combination which the law had pronounced to be illegal, and would depend on this -- whether any member was required to take any oath of this description, or any oath which the law did not require or authorize. He would, therefore, show that the combination was illegal -- that it was the practice of the association to administer oaths, and that they were administered, and that the members were bound to obey the commands of men not legally constituted, and that they were bound to secrecy. With regard to the form of the oath and the mode of administering it, it was proper he should call his lordship's attention to the 5th section of the 37th George III, cap. 123, which provided that any engagement in the nature of an oath should be deemed an oath within the meaning of the act in whatever form or manner the same should be administered.
The learned counsel then proceeded to state the facts of the case to the jury, and to call his witnesses. From the evidence it appeared that the prisoners were agricultural labourers, and that on the day stated in the indictment Legg and others were conducted to the house of Thomas Stanfield at Tolpuddle and, after waiting a short time, were blindfolded and taken into a room, when certain papers were read over to them while on their knees: on the bandage being taken from their eyes, they saw the figure of a skeleton with the words 'Remember your end' written over it. They were then sworn to obey the rules and regulations of the society, and not to divulge its secrets or proceedings. They were to pay a shilling on entrance, and a penny a week afterwards, to support the men who were out of work (those who had struck) till their masters raised their wages. The defendants were all present, and Lovelace wore a dress like a surplice. The general laws of the society were produced and read to the jury, from which it was collected that the society was to be called 'The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers'. Regular officers and periods of meeting were appointed, and the mode of making collections pointed out. The twentieth and twenty-first rules were as follows: 'That if any master attempts to reduce the wages of his workmen, if they are members of this order they shall instantly communicate the same to the corresponding secretary, in order that they may receive the support of the grand lodge; and in the meantime they shall use their utmost endeavours to finish the work they may have in hand, if any, and shall assist each other so that they may all leave the place together and with as much promptitude as possible.' 'That if any member of this society renders himself obnoxious to his employer solely on account of taking an active part in the affairs of this order, and if guilty of no violation or insult to his master, and shall be discharged from his employment solely on consequence thereof, either before or after the turn-out, then the whole body of men at that place shall instantly leave the place, and no member of this society shall be allowed to take work at that place until such member be reinstated in his situation.'
After the counsel for the defendants had addressed the court, contending that no offence had been proved, the judge summed up, enforcing on the jury that they must satisfy themselves as to the illegality of the oath which Legg had taken, and which had been administered to other members of the society. The precise formality of the oath, his lordship observed, was not under inquiry; but the Act of Parliament referred to an oath fixing an obligation on a party to whom it is administered. To sustain and prove this charge, the jury must be satisfied that the oath administered to Legg was to bind him not to divulge the secrets of the society: if so, it came within the meaning of the act. It was also a question whether the dress of James Lovelace, which resembled a clergyman's surplice, was not intended to give a degree of solemnity and additional force to the proceedings. The representation of a skeleton seemed also to have been intended to strike awe on the minds of the persons to whom the oath was administered. In taking the oath, if they were satisfied that it was intended as an obligation on the conscience of the person taking it, it clearly came within the meaning of the act. His lordship proceeded to remark on the rules of the society, which spoke of time violation of an obligation, evidently referring to the oath which was administered by the prisoners, and that such violation would be deemed by the society a crime. His lordship also read from a book belonging to the society the names of several persons (the prisoners among others), who had contributed to its funds, leaving the jury to draw their conclusions from these facts, and the whole chain of evidence which had been repeated to them. The jury, after about five minutes' consultation, found all the prisoners 'Guilty', and they were sentenced to be transported for seven years.
In pursuance of this sentence the prisoners were subsequently conveyed to New South Wales by the Surrey transport ship, the offence of which they had been convicted being deemed to be of a nature so heinous as not to be expiated by an imprisonment in this country. This proceeding was looked upon by the political supporters of the system of unions as one which was exceedingly harsh and unjustifiable under the circumstances of the case, and loud and repeated remonstrances were made, both within and without the walls of parliament, against it. For a considerable time the Government declared its unwillingness to interfere to direct any amelioration in the punishment directed to be inflicted upon the offenders, but at length they yielded to the constant exertions of the friends of the prisoners and granted a free pardon to them all.
At the commencement of the year 1838, those who had chosen to return to England were landed at Plymouth -- several of them, however, having preferred to remain in the colony to which they had been transported. An attempt was made to excite great sympathy in their behalf, and a species of public entry was made by them into London, but the whole affair turned out a failure, and the good sense of the general order of people was found to have induced a feeling not altogether in accordance with a supposition that these men had been martyrs.