The Tolpuddle martyrs, 1834

The Tolpuddle martyrs
The Tolpuddle martyrs

The history of the Tolpuddle martyrs: a group of six agricultural workers from Dorset, England who were sentenced to transportation to Australia for attempting to form a union.

Submitted by Steven. on March 19, 2017


As the sun rose on 24th February 1834, Dorset farm labourer George Loveless set off to work, saying goodbye to his wife Betsy and their three children. They were not to meet alone again for three years, for as he left his cottage in the rural village of Tolpuddle, the 37-year-old was served with a warrant for his arrest.

Loveless and five fellow workers – his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and Thomas's son John – were charged with having taken an illegal oath. But their real crime in the eyes of the establishment was to have formed a trade union to protest about their meagre pay of six shillings a week – the equivalent of 30p in today's money and the third wage cut in as many years.

With the bloody French Revolution and the wrecking of the Swing Rebellion fresh in the minds of the British establishment, landowners were determined to stamp out any form of organised protests. So when the local squire and landowner, James Frampton, caught wind of a group of his workers forming a union, he sought to stamp it out.

Workers met either under the sycamore tree in the village or in the upper room of Thomas Standfield's cottage. Members swore of an oath of secrecy – and it was this act that led to the men's arrest and subsequent sentence of seven years' transportation.

In prison, George Loveless scribbled some words: “We raise the watchword, liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!" This rallying call underlined the Martyrs’ determination and has since served to inspire generations of people to fight against injustice and oppression.

Transportation to Australia was brutal. Few ever returned from such a sentence as the harsh voyage and rigours of slavery took their toll.

After the sentence was pronounced, the working class rose up in support of the Martyrs. A massive demonstration marched through London and an 800,000-strong petition was delivered to Parliament protesting about their sentence.

After three years, during which the trade union movement sustained the Martyrs' families by collecting voluntary donations, the government relented and the men returned home with free pardons and as heroes.

Before the Arrest

Enclosed in Poverty

Between 1770 and 1830, enclosures changed the English rural landscape forever. Landowners annexed vast acreages, producing even greater wealth from the now familiar pattern of small hedged fields. Peasants no longer had plots to grow vegetables nor open commons for grazing their single cow or sheep and pigs.

Chalk and Cheese

The chalklands of Dorset offer poor farming conditions. Sheep dung was used to add nutrients to the soil and water meadows developed to encourage early grass growth but the land could barely sustain the population.

Travel further north and west and the chalk gives way to clay soils. The land becomes much more fertile and good for grazing cattle and dairy farming. Areas such as Cheddar in Somerset and Gloucestershire became known for cheese and the so the stark difference between the two regions gave us the phrase 'chalk and cheese'.

Life was hard

Diet was basic - tea, bread and potatoes. As a result, the people were badly nourished and small. Poor harvests and depression in the 1830s hit the area even harder.

Wages of Despair

Average family expenditure (1840s):
Rent 1s 2d
Bread 9s
Tea 2d
Potatoes 1s
Sugar 3d halfpenny
Soap 3d
Thread 2d halfpenny
Candles 3d
Salt 5d
Coal and wood 9d
Butter 4d halfpenny
Cheese 3d
TOTAL 13s 9d
Wages of 9 or 10 shillings a week reduced families to starvation level unless they could be supplemented by working wives and children.

Captain Swing

Low wages, appalling conditions and unemployment, bad winters and poor harvests in 1829 and 1830 fuelled a great explosion of anger, resulting in riots led by the mythical 'Captain Swing' in November 1830. Workers would post letters to their employers threatening damage unless pay was improved or the new machines destroyed. The letters would be signed 'Captain Swing'.

The uprising quickly spread across the south of England and through Dorset. 600 rioters were imprisoned, 500 sentenced to transportation and 19 executed. Some employers agreed to the workers' demands but once order was restored wages were cut. George Loveless, in Tolpuddle, drew his own lessons from the consequences of this action and concluded there had to be a different way.

Formation of Unions

Farm labourers in Tolpuddle were earning nine shillings a week and living in dreadful poverty. They met under the sycamore tree on the village green and discussed ways to improve their lives and stop the employers from making further pay cuts.

George Loveless, made the case for a union in Tolpuddle to give the labourers bargaining strength.

The landowners, led by James Frampton and supported by the government, were determined to squash unions and to control increasing outbreaks of dissent.

The man who framed the Martyrs

Born in 1769 at Moreton House, near Tolpuddle, into a long established family of country gentlemen, James Frampton passionately believed in Church, Constitution, King and Country - and maintenance of the status quo. He feared trades unionism threatened the power base and wealth of the landed upper classes.

He called on the Home Secretary to take action to stop the "dangerous societies" forming but trade unions were legal. So Squire Frampton used a charge of administering an unlawful oath, using a law applicable to Naval mutinies not workers’ rights.

Having witnessed the French Revolution, he was determined to suppress any sign of rebellion or opposition, whatever the cause.

The Oath and Betrayal

The Oath

George Loveless and the union leaders needed to gather support from farm workers before they could confront the employers. To build the union they needed to win members and collect the pennies in subscriptions so they had more strength in numbers. To bind workers together in this common approach they used an oath of solidarity.

New members were asked to pledge their support to the society and their fellow workers with their hand on a bible and looking at a picture of a skeleton.

The oath was taken in the upstairs room of Thomas Standfield's cottage in Tolpuddle.

The Trumped Up Charge

Squire Frampton had been busily gathering evidence against the Tolpuddle men. There was already evidence from one of their fellow labourers, Edward Legg, who had betrayed them at a preliminary magistrate's inquiry.

Now Frampton wished Lord Melbourne to know that societies were being organised among the agricultural labourers, inducing them to enter into combinations of a dangerous and alarming kind to which they are bound by oaths administered clandestinely.

Melbourne advised caution. But once Frampton had proof of unlawful combination his lordship advised him to study section 25 of 57 Geo. III, c. 19, the Act of Parliament whose purpose was to more effectually prevent Seditious Meetings and Assemblies.

The Rigged Trial

The Grand Jury's foreman was William Ponsonby MP, brother-in-law to the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne. Members of the jury included James Frampton, his son Henry, his step-brother Charles Wollaston and several of the magistrates who had signed the arrest warrant.

The trial was presided over by Judge Baron Williams whose closed mind was evident even before it properly began.

"The object of all legal punishment is not altogether with the view of operating on the offenders themselves, it is also for the sake of offering an example and a warning," he declared.

The Unjust Sentence

The landowner magistrates found a way of trapping and punishing the Martyrs, the using two laws in combination.

The men were tried at Dorchester Assizes in March 1834, found guilty of administering an unlawful oath, and sentenced to seven years' transportation to Australia. The harshness and injustice of their treatment caused massive public outcry.


Transportation was a brutal punishment. Few sent to the penal colonies ever returned either because they did not survive the ordeal or because they could not afford the journey home following the end of their sentence.

Five Martyrs were shipped in appalling conditions to New South Wales, where they were assigned as convict labour to landowners. George Loveless, delayed by illness after the Trial, later went in chains to Tasmania.

They did not return to England until three years after their infamous Trial.

To the hulks in chains

From their smoke-filled, stinking cell below the Crown Court in Dorchester, five of the convicted men were taken in chains to the prison hulks, York and Leviathan, lying off Portsmouth. George Loveless was too ill to travel but on 5th April 1834 he was declared fit and taken to the York hulk, six weeks later, on 17th May, he sailed aboard the William Metcalfe for Van Diemen's Land.

Hulks were condemned ships. There were usually three decks, each containing between 500 and 600 prisoners, issued with coarse convict clothing and fettered with heavy irons riveted to their legs. Disease was rampant. Epidemics of cholera, dysentery and smallpox swept through the packed masses, resulting in a tragic number of deaths on these voyages in such fetid ships.

Penal Colonies in Australia

Each of the Martyrs described their experience of transportation in the Horrors of Transportation. George Loveless explained: "To enumerate the various miseries and evils which prisoners are subjected to from the time of landing in the colony until their death, would be utterly impossible; suffice it to say it is dreadful in the extreme, so much so that a person who has never been there can have no idea of it.

James Brine gave more detail: "I was employed to dig post-holes . . . having walked so far without shoes, my feet were so cut and sore I could not put them to the spade. I got a piece of an iron hoop and wrapped round my foot to tread upon, and for six months . . . I went without shoes, clothes, or bedding, and lay on the bare ground at night. Shortly afterwards I was sent to the pool to wash sheep, and for seventeen days was working up to my breast in water. I thus caught a severe cold, and having told my master that I was very ill, asked him if he would be so good as to give me some-thing to cover me at night, if it were only a piece of horse-cloth. "No," said he, "I will give you nothing until you are due for it. What would your masters in England have had to cover them if you had not been sent here? I understand it was your intention to have murdered, burnt, and destroyed every thing before you, and you are sent over here to be severely punished, and no mercy shall be shown you."

The protest begins

News of the punishment spread and the fledgling unions knew their very existence was under attack. They had to overturn this sentence and win the right to organise.

Unknown to the six farm workers on the other side of the world, their case was being taken to Parliament and onto the streets of the capital.

The Mounting Protest

Unions organise to free the Tolpuddle Martyrs

As news of the sentence spread, the fledgling trade union movement began to organise a campaign for their release. On 24th March 1834, there was a Grand Meeting of the Working Classes, called by the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union on the instigation of Robert Owen. The meeting was attended by over 10,000 people: it was just the beginning. The agitation spread and grew. The London Central Dorchester Committee was formed to campaign for the men’s pardon.

A vast demonstration took place on 21st April 1834. Up to 100,000 people assembled in Copenhagen Fields near King’s Cross. Fearing disorder, the Government took extraordinary precautions. Lifeguards, the Household Cavalry, detachments of Lancers, two troops of Dragoons, eight battalions of infantry and 29 pieces of ordnance or cannon were mustered. More than 5,000 special constables were sworn in. The city looked like an armed camp.

By 7am the protesters began to gather marshalled by trade union stewards on horseback. Robert Owen, the leader of the Grand Consolidated Union and the father of the Co-operative Movement arrived.

The grand procession with banners flying marched to Parliament in strict discipline. Loud cheers came from spectators lining the streets and crowding the roof tops. At Whitehall the petition, borne on the shoulders of twelve unionists, was taken to the office of the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne. He hid behind his curtains and refused to accept the massive petition.

The Government tried to resist the mounting protest but the agitation for the men’s release was maintained. William Cobbett, Joseph Hume, Thomas Wakeley and other MPs kept the question constantly before Parliament. Petitions came from all over the country with over 800,000 signatures.

By June 1835, ten months after the Martyrs' arrival in penal colonies, conditional pardons had been granted by Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary.

Russell had jumped the gun: legally, a convict could not be conditionally pardoned under four years. The flurry of correspondence between Whitehall and the Sydney and Hobart Government Houses caused confusion and delay.

Thomas Wakley's campaign continued. He presented 16 petitions to Parliament. There was nationwide agitation. Conditional pardons were not good enough.

The Tolpuddle men refused to accept compromises and after further pressure, the Government agreed on 14th March 1836 that all the men should have a full and free pardon.

Trade unions had won and survived their first big challenge. The six farm workers from Tolpuddle were on their way home as free men.


Return to Britain

George Loveless was the first to arrive home, on June 13, 1837. He was greeted by members of the London Dorchester Committee. There was no fanfare: the King was dying. George slipped back into obscurity in Tolpuddle.

Here he wrote 'The Victims of Whiggery'. A powerful polemic, it was much quoted at meetings of Chartists who were beginning to gather strength against bad employment practices. The pamphlet's price was four pence; profits were devoted to the Martyrs' families, supplementing support from the London Dorchester Committee during the years of separation.

James Hammett

Alone among the Martyrs, James Hammett did not write of his experiences. He was the only one with a criminal record before the arrest. He alone fell foul of the law in New South Wales.

He stayed behind in Tolpuddle, forsaking farm work to become a builder's labourer. Details of his life only emerged in 1875 when he was honoured as one of the earliest agricultural trade unionists, at a time when Joseph Arch, leader of the Agricultural Labourers' Union, wished to consolidate resurgence of union activity.

Farms in Essex

The London Dorchester Committee raised funds with public support to buy leases on farms in Essex for the returning Martyrs. Five still campaigned for working men's rights, supporting the Chartist movement.

The Chartist Cause

They organised a Chartist association in Greensted, following the six points of 'The People's Charter': Manhood Suffrage, Voting by secret ballot, Payment of MPs, Annual Parliaments, Abolition of property qualifications for MPs Equal electoral districts.

The Essex squirearchy reacted much as Squire Frampton had. The Vicar of Greensted preached against their chartist activities: the foundations of decent society were being undermined; paternal, beneficial order where everyone knew his proper place must be restored. He alerted the Home Office.

According to the Essex Standard: "George Loveless, instead of quietly fulfilling the duties of his station is still dabbling in the dirty waters of radicalism and publishing pamphlets to keep up the old game."

While in Essex James Brine, then aged 26, married Elisabeth Standfield, 21, daughter of Thomas Standfield.

Emigration to Canada

Five of the six Tolpuddle Martyrs emigrated to Canada. After their return from transportation in Australia the London to Dorchester Committee rented a farm in Essex for them. It would have been very difficult for them to return to Tolpuddle and find employment.

Why they went to Canada is not clear. Perhaps they had gained a taste for the challenges of establishing themselves in a new colonial country from their experience in Australia. Perhaps they just wanted to make a fresh start.

Only James Hammett returned to Tolpuddle, able to get building work and help from his brothers.
It would have been a hard life in Canada and they would have had to learn how to farm in new conditions. A lot of big trees were felled to clear the ground for crops. They had to learn how to make maple syrup!

In 1874 the family moved to East London where John Standfiled opened the Dominion Hotel.

John's occupations are listed as
• 1st postmaster at Bryanston, July 1, 1863 - May 12, 1874
• Also Justice of the Peace in 1871
• Hotel keeper in London East
• Deputy Reeve of London East in 1877
It is interesting that he served as a Justice of the Peace. No doubt much fairer than what he had dealt with as a martyr.

Meet the Martyrs

George Loveless

Self-educated and self-reliant, George Loveless was 37 when arrested. He married Elizabeth (Betsy) and by 1834 they had three children, all supported on a ploughman's wage of nine shillings a week.
After George returned to England, the couple had two further children but Sina aged just four, died during the rough sailing to Canada and was buried at sea.
Loveless was a Methodist lay preacher. He was articulate and wrote eloquently about the Martyrs' experiences in 'The Victims of Whiggery' and 'The Church Shown Up'. Loveless and four of his fellow Martyrs emigrated to Canada, where he helped to build a Methodist Church at Siloam.
He died in 1874 at the age of 77.
George wrote a stinging attack on the church establishment in The Church Shown Up

James Brine

Born in 1813, James was arrested before his 21st birthday. Reputed to have a bright personality, he produced a dramatic account of his experiences as a Martyr.

In Australia he was robbed of all the bedding and clothes allocated by the authorities on his way to his assigned master. On his return to England he married Elizabeth Standfield, daughter of Thomas and sister of John, further strengthening the family bonds, at Greensted Church, Essex. They had 11 children, four born in England, the others in Canada. Brine lived to 90, dying in 1902.
He built the log house which is still a local landmark - the only building associated with the Martyrs left in their adopted country.

James Hammett

Born at the end of 1811, he was an outsider: unlike the others, he never wrote about his experiences, had a criminal record and was not a Methodist. He alone returned to Tolpuddle as a builder's labourer. He was not at the fateful initiation, and may have accepted arrest on behalf of his brother, John, who was present. Hammett had been imprisoned in 1829 for allegedly stealing some pieces of iron.

In 1875 the Agricultural Workers Union presented James with an illuminated address and a fine engraved watch. He married three times and had seven children. Before his death in 1891 he moved into Dorchester Workhouse so as not to be a burden on his family. It is said that when he was buried in the Parish Church in Tolpuddle, orders were given that they should be no speeches over the grave. Talk of unions was still feared by those in power.

James Loveless

Five years younger than George, James was born in 1808. Married with two children, he too was a Methodist preacher.
A founder member of the Tolpuddle Union, he was singled out by Squire Frampton as a firebrand as early as 1830 during local riots in Piddletown. Of all the emigrants to Canada he alone did not buy land, opting instead to become sexton of the North Street Methodist Church in London Township, Ontario. He remained so until his death at 65 in February 1873.

John Standfield

John and his father Thomas along with George and James Loveless worked on the same farm in Tolpuddle. All the families were very close.
After their return from transportation in Australia, John moved with the others to Essex and then to Canada. There he became mayor of East London, where he kept a hotel, ran a shop and founded a choir.

Thomas Standfield

The oldest, Thomas Standfield was 44 in 1834 and married to the Loveless brothers' sister, Dinniah. By February, 1834 they had five children (with one on the way) of whom John, a fellow Martyr, was the oldest. Thomas was also a Methodist and co-founder of the Tolpuddle Union. Many of their meetings were held in the upstairs room in his cottage.
On moving to Essex, Thomas and his son John went to Fenner's farm, five miles from the Lovelesses, which had been leased for them by the London Dorchester Committee.They emigrated to Canada two years after the Lovelesses. He died aged 74 in February, 1864. Diana soon followed him. Their graves are next to George and Betsy Loveless in Siloam cemetery.

What of the wives and families?

After the transportation of their husbands, the wives of the Tolpuddle men had to apply for parochial relief to Squire Frampton and the Justices who had organised their arrest and punishment. In refusing any assistance, Frampton considered that no person should be entitled if they could afford to join a union. "They meant us to suffer for the offences of our husbands" said the women in a letter to supporters. "Tolpuddle have for many years been noticed for tyranny and oppression and cruelty and now the union is broke up here."
Dianah Loveless (1798-1865) married Thomas Standfield (1789-1864) who was one of the Martyrs along with their eldest son, John (1813-1898). Their daughter Elizabeth (1818-1908) married Martyr James Brine (1812-10902) while they were in Ongar, Essex in 1839.
The union campaign started raising money for the families and soon relief was at hand: "Sir, on Tuesday last a Gentleman came from London and relieved us; he gave us £2.3s each, all equal alike; had it not been for this I cannot tell what we should have done."

Family Tree

Working people in the nineteenth century tended to have large families. Infant deaths were common and giving birth killed many women. An example was James Loveless who was the uncle to Martyrs, George and James. His first wife, Christian died after giving birth to three children but only one, Betty, survived after birth. With his second wife, Sarah, they had baby James who died within a year and two years later both mother and baby died. James married a third time to Betty. In 1764 baby James died, then in 1766 baby Jenny died, in 1771 new baby, Jenny, died and then later the same year another baby Jenny died along with the mother.

The ties between the families of the Tolpuddle Martyrs can be seen through the various family trees. The descendents are proud of their roots back to Tolpuddle. The South West TUC has tried to combine the trees in a single complex diagram which you can download below.

Taken and slightly edited by libcom from text by the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, run by the Trades Union Congress.