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The Tolpuddle Martyrs and What Happened in 1834

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The Tolpuddle Martyrs in Dorset, 1834

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of six Dorset labourers who helped bring about the foundation of trade unions. They lived at a time when conditions were often terrible for working men and they had no one to help or support them in their difficulties. So in 1834 a group of farm workers from the Dorset village of Tolpuddle tried to set up their own trade union and swore a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to protest against the gradual lowering of agricultural wages.

These Tolpuddle labourers refused to work for less than 10 shillings a week, although by this time wages had been reduced to seven shillings and were due to be further reduced to six. The society, led by George Loveless, a Methodist local preacher, met in the house of Thomas Standfield. This was not actually illegal at the time but the government of the day became fearful, considering that such activities threatened the power of employers. In 1834, James Frampton, a local landowner and magistrate, wrote to Home Secretary Lord Melbourne to complain about the union. Six of the workers involved were quickly arrested on a charge of making an illegal oath and tried at Dorchester. The sentence passed on them was unduly harsh - seven years transportation overseas to Australia.

This was a terrible punishment, and an outcry at once followed. The government did nothing at first, and among the people responsible for this was Lord Melbourne, who was Home Secretary that year. In England they became popular heroes and 800,000 signatures were collected for their release. Their supporters organised a political march, one of the first successful marches in the UK, and all were pardoned, on condition of good conduct, in March 1836, with the support of Lord John Russell, who had recently become the new Home Secretary.

However, although they were pardoned the growth of trade unions was held back by fears of this event. Today memorials to the six 'martyrs' (George and James Loveless, Thomas and John Stanfield, James Hammett and James Brine can be seen in Tolpuddle.

After their release the Lovelesses, Standfields and Brine first settled on farms near Chipping Ongar, Essex, then moved to London, Ontario, where there is now a monument in their honour and an affordable housing co-op and trade union complex named after them. George Loveless is buried in Siloam Cemetery on Fanshawe Park Road East in London, Ontario. James Brine is buried in St. Marys Cemetery, St. Marys, Ontario. He died in 1902, having lived in nearby Blanshard Township since 1868. Hammett remained in Tolpuddle and died in the Dorchester workhouse in 1891.

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