The Tolpuddle Martyrs 150th Anniversary
Memorial Oration

Duncan Waterson*

On behalf of the Sydney branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History I bid you welcome to what I hope will be an annual event. certainly the bloody history of the mass of the people has more than enough dates and events to keep us continuously preoccupied and, more importantly, to assist in applying the lessons of the past to the problems of the present and the inevitable conflicts of the future.

Here, bounded by the temples of property, the haunts of the flagellators and the fiddlers, in the courtyard of the flogged — all surrounded by the tombstones of capitalism -we pause to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the sentencing on 19th March 1834 of six landless labourers of Tolpuddle Village in Dorset to seven years’ transportation to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. It was near this spot that James Loveless, aged 29, Thomas Stanfield, 51, John Stanfield, 25, James Brine, 25, and James Hannett, 22, after passage in the convict ship “Surrey”, were imprisoned on 4th September 1834. George Loveless, then 41 years old, was sent separately on the “William Metcalfe”, arriving in Hobart on the same date. Their experiences are a reminder to us, meeting amon~stsuch beautifully restored buildings, that history is, and should be, primarily concerned with flesh and blood; with men, women and children, rather than with mere artefacts or property sanitized by antiquarianism and genealogy.

The transportation of these men touk place against a background of social turmoil and political upheaval in Great Britain. Following the agitation which resulted in the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, the working classes began to organize and to form trade unions in order to remedy the distressed situation of the working classes. Robert Owen’s notion that there were two groups, the productive and the non-productive classes, was developing; and then, as now, extractive and building workers were using the strike weapon t6 react against their miserable conditions. In 1834 the new Grand National Consolidated Trades Union of Great Britain and Ireland enrolled well over half a million members, thereby causing profound alarm amongst the propertied classes. A wave of millenarian and utopian feeling swept through the rural and urban working classes~ They now realised that the parliamentary xeforms had satisfied part of the propertied bourgeoisie but had certainly not greatly assisted” or indeed ameliorated, the condition and freedoms of the majority of the British people.

There still survived amongst the propertied classes a fear of secret societies and revolutionary activity which had existed in the ranks of those who possessed wealth ever since the English revolution of the 17th century. The message of the French revolution was extremely fresh in the minds of the aristocracy, the gentry and the church. The sentencing, then, of these simple and honest farm labourers by a court sanctified by a Whig ministry, prosecuting them in the name of the law, order and property, was a vital part of that backlash by property against popular discontent and the stirrings of the world’s first proletariat, the working-classes of industrial Britain. Con~ersely, it was the ability of the working-class to mobilize, particularly in a great procession through London led by Robert Owen on 21st April 1834, that sparked an effective protest that ultimately led to the pardon, release and return of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Such landless labourers also suffered from substantial general and specific grievances. Underlying their dispossessed condition was a perennial feeling that people in the countryside were now forever denied access to landed property. It is no wonder that the arrival of such people as convicts in New South Wales intensified radical attacks on the squattocracy and their pretensions to establish a parallel system of landed values and stratification to that which existed in the United,Kingdom. Rural labourers wanted an end to the tithe system and a relaxing of the traditional game laws which were now being transmuted by the middle classes into cash transactions. Nor was it an accident that all except one of the martyrs were Methodists, and bitterly opposed to the established Church of England. Not only were they increasingly disadvantaged by the introduction of laboursaving and cost-cutting agricultural machines such as threshers, but they were feeling the economic weight of that unholy duo, the squire and the parson.

Certainly, however, the presence of these martyrs in the Australian colonies was a reminder then, as indeed it should be now, of the oppressions experienced by many of our own ancestors. They reminded free, emancipist and convict alike of the weight of Irish landlordism, of the betrayal by the gentry of Scotland of the Highland peasantry, and of the Black Acts, rural riots, hunger and yeomanry force of rural England. Indeed, the history of the Tolpuddle Martyrs should be a reminder to us all of the political power, legal chicanery and social control that those set in authority over the mass of the people are willing to exercise if they feel at any time that their property and status are in realor imagined danger.

The history of the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is significant for an historian, being comparatively well documented, as are the lives of the Dorset labourers themselves. In October 1833 a ‘Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers at Tolpuddle’ was established, with specific rules and initiation rites crudely based on those pertaining of Freemason’s lodges. The aim of the union was to resist a determined attempt by squires and farmers to reduce wages from nine or ten shillings per week to six or seven shillings per week for a landless labourer with family, and to establish a bargaining system. The union, like most of the other new rural unions, rejected the rick and barn-burning tactics of “Captain Swing” and earlier rural protesters, and stressed respectability, loyalty and the desirability of non-violent negotiations. The leader, George Loveless, believed that he had secured a minimum-wage agreement but this was repudiated not only by the masters but also by the pusillanimous local Anglican clergyman who had, in the best tradition of ‘property at prayer’, acted as a dishonest broker. Loveless himself was a Methodist lay-preacher and was both educated and literate, the two. not always being synonymous attributes within and without the labour movement.

Dorset was the stronghold of Tory clergymen and encompassed a squirearchy with strong connections to both the aristocracy and to rising Whig politicians. Lord Melbourne himself was the brother-in-law of the foreman of the Grand Jury, one W.S. Ponsonby, MP for Dorset. Thus the landowners and the Home Secretary, as well as the Prime Minister, were on the lookout for an opportunity to break the organization of rural labourers before it could develop, like the urban unions, to a scale of national significance.

On 9th December 1833 the local magistrates inserted that ever-present virus in the trades union movement, the police informer and spy (in this case, Edward Legg), into the small group of Tolpuddle unionists and, on 24th February 1834, Loveless and his five companions were arrested, not for belonginq to a trades union, because such an act had been legal since the repeal of the Combination acts in 1824, but for an apparent technical breaking of the Illegal Oaths Act of 1797 which had been passed specifically during the French Revolutionary Wars to suppress the great naval mutiny at the Nore. The men were confined in Dorchester Castle and were tried at .the local assizes in the Dorchester County “all between 15th and 19th March 1834.

The trial exhibited, according to your point of view, all the characteristics of British justice at its best or worst. Indeed it resembled one of those odious show trials that are such a feature of life in the 20th century. The judge, John Williams, was an ambitious former Whig politician seeking preferment. His determination to serve his political masters was forever in evidence at the trial. The Grand Jury was comprised exclusively of landowners and farmers, many of whom were prime movers in the initial prosecution and were related to the employers of Tolpuddle. The Petty Jury was made up solely of farmers totally out of sympathy with the landless, and the two principal witnesses were both police spies. In addition, lurking in the background was substantial pressure from “Silly Billy” himself, King William IV, to put down unionists and those who would disturb the established order. The five were found guilty after a few minutes’ deliberation by the jury and were sentenced on this day, 19th March, 1834, to seven years’ transportation to Australia. They were thus part of the transportation of nearly five hundred political and social protesters to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land in the 1830s and were in the long tradition of exiling such people as obstreperous Chartists, Corresponding Society members, Scottish radicals and Irish rebels to the Australian colonies before the great wave of economic-assisted immigrants arrival in New South Wales.

Nevertheless, for twenty years the organization of agricultural labourers in England was largely frustrated and smashed. Not until 1875, when James Hammett received his gold watch from trade union admirers, was there a viable and tolerably successful agricultural labourer’s union in the United Kingdom.

Of the five, only James Hammett returned to his native village, and then worked not as an agricultural labourer but as an artisan. In fact, he had been wrongly arrested: although a member of the union, it was his brother John, whose wife was pregnant, who was a member of the small group at Tolpuddle intended for removal. Hammett said little about his experiences, but, when questioned on this point later in the century, answered that ‘If you’d been sent into the interior of New South Wales and there been sold like a sheep for a pound, would you want to talk about it?’. James Loveless, John and Thomas Stanfield and James Brine were all sent to various holdings on the Hunter River and then imprisoned, on the spot we are standing on today, between November 1835 and January 1836. Except for Brine, who was working far to the west of Sydney, the martyrs left New South Wales on 11th September 1837 and arrived in the United Kingdom on 17th March 1838. George Loveless, the one transported to Hobart, was variously employed as a shepherd and stockkeeper until, with the others, he was pardoned in March 1836. He returned to a hero’s welcome in London in June 1837 and, after a brief stint farming in Essex, migrated to Canada with the other four. There, at London, Ontario they formed the nucleus of a respectable Methodist small-farming settlement.

What were the legacies of this case? We have already mentioned that the exile of the Tolpuddle labourers occurred during a period of parliamentary reform of the House of Commons and Whig political dominance. In fact, the apparent savagery of their sentences and transportation, particularly when combined with such a set of legal pressures and technical illegalities, reflected the determination of the gentry and the aristocracy to crush emerging trades union organizations, to contain and then to annihilate working-class radicalism, and to force down, through dilution and machinery, the existing price of labour. The memories of this onslaught, plus the opportunities for economic gain and social equality, helped to strengthen the infant colonial labour movement. The presence of these men in Australia reinforced an emerging radical tinge in a society becoming increasingly malleable and modern. Their case was used by those opposed to the attempt of a would be bunnyip aristocracy to dominate from their grass castles. They exemplified the utter control by capital of so many political, social and economic structures of the Old World. Their ‘martyrdom’ demonstrated then, as it does today, the need for vigilance and remembrance; and their case is a constant reminder that honest, innocent men, even convinced Methodist Christians of an upright, God-fearing, temperate, and family-oriented nature, can be convicted, shanghaied and spied upon for the rest of their lives if they appeared to offend the existing economic and social order.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ experience also illuminates the endemic role of secret police and informers in persecution of not only members of the labour movement, but also other people who expressed alternative and radical views. There could be few better services to the memory of these people than the abolition by the social democratic Wran government of the special Branch unit of the NSW Police Force and its anti-Labor associates.

Perhaps because of our past, the past of which the Tolpuddle Martyrs form a minor but shining part, the extension of civil liberties, of freedom of information, of freedom from surveillance has seldom been of high priority in this state. Let us remember, then, these political prisoners as well as the tens of thousands of contemporary political prisoners scattered throughout the world. Nor is Australia immune from such miscarriages of justice and reason. Let us remember, too, the need to release another group of prisoners incarcerated for sixteen years — Anderson, Dunn and Allister — whose shameful neglect by two Labor governments, State and Federal, reinforces what the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs should teach, and continue to teach, us: that, it the words of that great old radical Thomas Paine, ‘Hell, like tyranny, is not easily conquered’.

Perhaps I could add that there is never any resting place on the long and rugged road to full economic freedom and dignity. As H.V. Evatt, himself no stranger to history, the law, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and persecution, remarked 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.

In remembering the Tolpuddle Martyrs, surrounded as we are by growing violence throughout the world, we should take heed not only of Evatt’s conclusion, but also of the trials and tribulations of these six men of Dorset.

* This address, by Duncan Waterson Professor of History, Macquarie University, was delivered at the rear of the newly restored Convict Barracks, Mint and Rum Hospital on 19th March, 1984.