Little Bits of History

Martyrs to the Cause

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 18, 2014
Tolpuddle Martyrs contemporary illustration

Tolpuddle Martyrs contemporary illustration

March 18, 1834: The Tolpuddle Martyrs are sentenced to deportation. The Ordinance of Labourers passed in 1349 and is often considered the beginning of English labor law. It fixed wages and imposed price controls as well as required everyone under the age of 60 to work. There were a few other items to the law. Although often revised and ignored, it wasn’t repealed until 1863. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, there was an influx of unskilled and semi-skilled workers into the job markets. Trade unions began to form and the government sought to control public unrest due to unfair work practices. So they passed the Combination Act in 1799 which banned trade unions and collective bargaining.

Unions were already widespread and although there was an effort to rid the country of them, they simply would not go away. By 1824/25, the Combination Act was repealed and unions were no longer illegal. In 1832, the Reform Act extended the right to vote but still did not grant universal suffrage. Six men in Tolpuddle in Dorset, England founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers  whose main purpose was to protest against the lowering of agricultural wages due to an excess of workers and a mechanization of the farming process. They refused to work for less than ten shillings per week – although the wages at the time had already fallen to seven shillings and would eventually drop to six.

James Frampton, a local landowner, wrote to the Prime Ministers, Lord Melbourne, to complain about this union behavior. He mentioned an old, obscure law from 1797 prohibiting men from swearing an oath to each, which was part of the initiation into the Friendly Society. James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, James Loveless (brothers), Thomas Standfield (George’s brother-in-law), and John Standfield (Thomas’s son) were all arrested and brought to trial before Judge Baron John Williams. They were found guilty and transported to Australia for seven years.

The men became popular heroes and 800,000 signatures were collected demanding their release. Their supporters organized one of the first successful political marches in the UK. In 1836, Lord John Russell, recently appointed to Home Secretary, allowed for the men’s release from their sentence, all except James Hammet who had a prior criminal record. Four of them men returned to England. Hammet was released in 1837. The four who returned to England first went to Essex and then moved to London, Ontario, Canada. Today, there is a museum for the men and their impact on trade unions in England located in Tolpuddle, Dorset. There is an annual festival held in their honor as well.

The strongest bond of human sympathy outside the family relation should be one uniting working people of all nations and tongues and kindreds. – Abraham Lincoln

Labor cannot stand still. It must not retreat. It must go on, or go under. – Harry Bridges

The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor. – Thomas Donahue

The scaffold has never yet and never will destroy an idea or a movement. – Joseph Ettor

Also on this day: New London, Texas – In 1937, a school explosion took place in Texas.
Jacques Trumped – In 1314, Jacques de Molay was burned at the stake.
Tri-State Tornado – In 1925, a destructive tornado traveled across three state.
We’ve Got the Power – In 1937, a pedal craft flew the distance.


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