Before 1824/25 the Combination Acts had outlawed "combining" or organising to gain better working conditions. In 1824/25 these Acts were repealed, so trade unions were no longer illegal. In 1832, the year of a Reform Act which extended the vote in England but did not grant universal suffrage, six men from Tolpuddle in Dorset founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to protest against the gradual lowering of agricultural wages in the 1830s caused by the surplus supply of labour in an era when mechanisation was beginning to have an impact on agricultural working practices for the first time. This was a particular problem in remote parts of southern England, such as Dorset, where farmers did not have to compete with the higher wages paid to workers in London and in the northern towns experiencing the Industrial Revolution. They refused to work for less than 10 shillings a week, although by this time wages had been reduced to seven shillings a week and were due to be further reduced to six shillings. The society, led by George Loveless, a Methodist local preacher, met in the house of Thomas Standfield.
Groups such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs would often use a skeleton painting as part of their initiation process. The newest member would be blindfolded and made to swear a secret oath of allegiance. The blindfold would then be removed and they would be presented with the skeleton painting. This was to warn them of their own mortality but also to remind them of what happens to those who break their promises. In 1834 James Frampton, a local landowner and magistrate, wrote to the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne to complain about the union. Melbourne recommended invoking the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797, an obscure law promulgated in 1797 in response to the Spithead and Nore mutinies, which prohibited the swearing of secret oaths. James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, George's brother James Loveless, George's brother in-law Thomas Standfield, and Thomas's son John Standfield were arrested and tried before Sir John Williams in R v Lovelass and Others. They were found guilty and transported to Australia for seven years. James Loveless, the two Standfields, Hammett and Brine sailed on the Surry to Sydney, where they arrived on 17 August 1834. George Loveless was delayed due to illness and left later on the William Metcalf to Van Diemen's Land, reaching Hobart on 4 September.
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 Home Secretary. When the pardon reached George Loveless some delay was caused in his leaving due to no word from his wife as to whether she was to join him in Van Dieman’s Land. On 23 December 1836 a letter was received to the effect that she was not coming and Loveless sailed from Van Dieman’s Land on 30 January 1837, arrived in England on 13 June 1837. In New South Wales, there were delays in obtaining an early sailing due to tardiness in the authorities confirming good conduct with the convicts' assignees and then getting them released from their assignments. James Loveless, Thomas and John Stanfield, and James Brine departed Sydney on the John Barry on 11 September 1837, reaching Plymouth on 17 March 1838, one of the departure points for convict transport ships. Although due to depart with the others, James Hammett was unfortunately detained in Windsor, charged with an assault, while the others left the colony. It was not until March 1839 that he sailed, arriving in England in August 1839. 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. 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.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, located in Tolpuddle, Dorset, features displays and interactive exhibits about the Martyrs and their impact on trade unionism. In 1934 the TUC decide to build a lasting tribute to the Tolpuddle Martyrs by building six cottages to accommodate retired agricultural trade unionists. A levy of a farthing per member was collected from unions and land was bought on the edge of the village. The TUC had electricity brought to Tolpuddle and a new well was dug. The cottages were designed to high standards for artisan dwellings. Run and supported financially by the TUC, the charity trustees agree the terms for future residents. Back in 1934 many farm workers faced eviction from tied accommodation when they retired. So it was fitting to provide cottages for those who were particularly vulnerable because of trade union activities. Free parking. Free admission. Access for the disabled. Lay-by for coach parking opposite the museum. Toilets including disabled facilities.
Location : Dorchester Road, Tolpuddle, Dorset, DT2 7EH
Transport: Dorchester South OR Dorchester West (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 186 and 187 from Dorchester stop outside.
Opening Times : Tuesday to Sunday 10:00 - 17:00; Sundays open at 11:00
Tickets : Free
Tel: 01305 848 237