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Anti Capitalist Meetup: The Tolpuddle Martyrs: Why them, why now?

The Tolpuddle Martyrs, condemned and harshly punished by the biased justice system of 19th century England, were very lucky. They not only lived through their ordeal, but also became enduring symbols of resistance whose story is celebrated even now.  Next weekend, union members and their families from all over the UK will gather at the little museum on the outskirts of Tolpuddle on July 19th – 21st for a festival of music picnics, and rallies. The magnificent union banners often seen on the streets of London during the recent protests will be paraded in a far different setting: the rolling agricultural land of Dorset. Though the Martyrs didn’t pay with their lives, their fate was dire enough, and the circumstances that caused them to be sent, first to the prison hulks of the Southwest coast and then across the world, were universal enough that they became a rallying point for resistance throughout the country.

What makes their story relevant, not only to British union history, but to the present circumstances that many working people find themselves in worldwide, is that their story, like ours, arose from a time of social and technological change, dislocation, changing class allegiances, long term conflict, and scarcity. English history has not been part of the American educational canon since before WWII, when my mother struggled with the intricacies of the Corn Laws in high school; so follow me below the fold to find out a little of what is not shown in the costume dramas that pass for our understanding of 19th century England.


The Great Land Grab:

They hang the man, and flog the woman,

That steals the goose from off the common;

 But let the greater villain loose,

 That steals the common from the goose.


Prior to the early 1600s, large amounts of land in the UK was common land. Royalty and some of the aristocracy had estates that were off limits to the general public, but there was enough land that workers who lived in the countryside and paid tithes in produce to the local landowner could still raise livestock, hunt, and forage on common ground sufficient to support a family. The first Enclosure Acts took the traditional right of the commons away from the Irish, and gave the land to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, but commoners on the main island also underwent a series of dispossessions after 1750.

Some people resisted, particularly in the South and Southwest during the 1640s, where raiders vandalised offenders under the leadership of “Lady Skimmington”, skimmington being a symbol of protest against societal transgressions to the established order and common law. This was a period when the laws of Parliament were superseding customary rights, and working class countrymen continued to contest this change for the next two centuries.  The Captain Swing riots in 1830 were a symptom of the general unrest that had long been extant in farming communities, despite their association with breaking farm machinery, and with the earlier Luddite rebellion.


Machines and Men:

The English industrial revolution, unlike our current technological great leap forward, did not take place in a generation, but slowly and sporadically. It came to the textile industry and the coal mines far earlier than it did to the fields, so its effect on the general population increased slowly over time. It did affect the cottage industry of cloth manufacture fairly rapidly, and took away an important source of income from the villagers in the countryside.  As industrialisation spread, more and more industries became mechanised. However, as goods became cheaper and more readily available to the general populace, other people lost sources of income they had formerly earned from their trades. Textile workers organized first and, after breaking up machinery during the 1811- 1817 Luddite Rebellion, were ruthlessly suppressed. At one point there were more British soldiers involved with combating the revolt than were fighting the French army. Machine breaking was made a capital crime, and show trials were held. Perpetrators, sympathizers, and even innocent bystanders were punished, either by execution or transport to penal colonies abroad.

Life in the countryside was particularly affected in the 19th century: the farms were no longer open field, supporting their dependent villages, and agricultural labour became casual and wage driven, with no guarantee of work. Pay declined, as less people were needed. While some families moved to industrial centres, others in more remote areas such as rural Dorset, found themselves stranded with no means of transport, trying to support their families on less and less. The Swing rioters, like the Luddites before them, were protesting the loss of their livelihood, and were punished in a similar manner.


Class alliances and the Gentleman Farmer:

As conspicuous consumption became more popular, landowning farmers began to style themselves as part of the growing middle class. This required a greater percentage of the total income earned, and led to a growing distance between the farmer and farm worker:

The land produces, on an average, what it always produced; but, there is a new distribution of the produce. This ‘Squire’ Charington’s father used, I dare say, to sit at the head of the oak-table along with his men, say grace to them, and cut up the meat and the pudding. He might take a cup of strong beer to himself, when they had none; but, that was pretty nearly all the difference in their manner of living. So that all lived well. But the ‘Squire had many wine-decanters and wine-glasses and ‘a dinner-set’ and a ‘breakfast-set’ and ‘desert-knives’; and these evidently imply carryings on and a consumption that must of necessity have greatly robbed the long oak table if it had remained fully tenanted. That long table could not share in the work of the decanters and the dinner set. Therefore, it became almost untenanted; the labourers retreated to hovels, called cottages; and instead of board and lodging, they got money; so little of it as to enable the employer to drink wine; but the, that he might not reduce them to quiet starvation they were enabled to come to him, in the king’s name and demand food as paupers.

Journalist and MP Thomas Cobbett 1825

Agricultural workers, unable to count on either outside income from cottage industry or extra resources formerly available to them from the commons, were reduced to living in increasingly impoverished circumstances. When they objected, as did the Tolpuddle Martyrs, landowners asked higher authority to punish them as they would rebels or thieves: with imprisonment and transportation.


Other Influences:

Alliances fighting the French during the Napoleonic Wars shifted over time, but Britain was involved in low intensity fighting for the entire period between 1803- 1815, both with their own military forces, and through financially supporting other countries to fight proxy wars, sometimes under British command. When the wars ended, and the soldiers came home, excess labour depressed already low wages. The mercantilist Corn Laws, which were in force between 1815 and 1846 protected landowning farmers from cheaper foreign grain imports by imposing massive import duties. The landowners profited, however, the workers who were now forced to buy grain, when they had formerly grown it for themselves, suffered. In the early 1830s, there were poor harvests, so for all intents and purposes there was little grain to buy, especially on a workman’s wages, either in the industrial North or in Dorset.



As London and the north became more industrialised, and those disenfranchised agricultural workers who could travel moved to these areas to find work, collective dissatisfaction of the workers increased. Surplus workers, low wages, rising living expenses, and the obvious differences in living standards between industrialists and landowners on one hand, and the rest of the population on the other, made social unrest inevitable.  Working people realised they were replaceable cogs in the industrial and agricultural machinery of production, and began to realise that specific actions such as the Luddite and Swing rebellions needed to evolve into a more general movement toward unionism.  Because the textile mills had been the earliest adopters of industrial technology, workers there were the first to organise, though mechanics, blacksmiths, and other trades associated with the mills were encouraged to join. Though the National Association for the Protection of Labour, foundered through internal politics, the later and more successful Grand National Consolidated Trades Union shortly succeeded it. This union was founded in London by Robert Owen, an important contributor to Socialist thought in England, and eventually an MP. in 1834. It was under the influence of organisers from this union, who were trying to expand participation throughout the trades, that six desperate agricultural workers from Tolpuddle attempted to form a “friendly society” for the purpose of bettering the lot of themselves and their starving families.


The Martyrs and their society:

George Loveless was a Methodist minister, or dissenter, which already branded him as suspiciously rebellious with local Anglican landowners and clergy, though he and his brother James had actually served as guards over local property during the Swing Rebellion. Along with Thomas Standfield and his son John, James Hammett and James Brine, they met frequently to discuss how they might work together to bring their wages in line with the already low 10 shilling weekly wages of workers in surrounding farms. Their income had gone from 9 shillings to 8 when living expenses amounted to around 14 shillings a week. Unless a family had multiple incomes, they would starve. The men first applied to the local magistrate in 1831, who ruled that the landowners, not workers, were entitled to set wages.

Loveless applied for advice from Grand National Trades Union, and the men then decided to form one of their own by swearing an oath of solidarity. While placards advising against unions were later posted around the village, it was the oath that sealed their fate. When an agent of the local squire infiltrated the society and was administered the oath, he testified that he had done so before a county judge known to be hostile to unions, and a biased jury of landowners. In 1834, the men were convicted of breaking parts of two laws: one against sedition, the other against “administering an unlawful oath”, a subsection of an obscure 18th century law that had been put on the books to prevent mutiny on Navy ships.

The judge delivered a hard sentence: seven years transportation to Australia saying,

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.


The prison continent:

Rebellion and sedition along with destruction of property, or even stealing a loaf of bread, were all punished harshly, by imprisonment, or preferably getting rid of the offenders entirely either by execution or transportation. So many desperate people broke the law during the 18th and 19th centuries that English prisons simply weren’t big enough to hold them.  Before the American Revolution, many prisoners had been sent there, but after the War of Independence, and discovery of Australia, new penal colonies were formed to supply the British Navy with timber, food, and sailcloth. Australia was a harsh and unforgiving environment, and those who did not perish in the overcrowded prison ships anchored off the English coast, or while they were manacled during the nine-month voyage via Brazil and South Africa, often did when they were immediately set to work on their arrival. They often worked barefoot, were given neither bedding nor sufficient clothing, and slept on the bare ground at night. This was the fate of James Lovelace, the Standfields, Brine, and Hammet. George Lovelace was singled out and sent to Van Diemen’s Land, a prison colony so brutal it was later rebranded as Tasmania to avoid the association with barbarism. Of his conditions Lovelace said,

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.

This was the punishment that made them martyrs, symbols of all that was unjust about the emerging system of English mercantile capitalism and world hegemony. The biased trial over a trumped up infraction, and cruel punishment, made them a focal point for demonstrations that showed the strength of the union movement, and eventually saw them pardoned and returned to England.


Pushback II:

Six agricultural workers from rural Dorset: they could have been neglected and forgotten, but they represented injustices that touched every family in working class Britain. Many were forced to work for less than a living wage in progressively more dehumanising environments: in the fields, in the mills, and in the mines. As news of their harsh sentence travelled, a sense of outrage built. Owen’s Grand National Trades Union supported their cause, as did a number of Members of Parliament including Thomas Wakely and Thomas Cobbett. The London Central Dorchester committee was formed to agitate for their pardon, and gathered a petition with 800,000 signatures. A march to present it to the Home Secretary was organized and attracted 100,000 people. Thousands of others cheered from the rooftops along the demonstration route. The government so feared the potential for disturbance that

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.

Nonetheless the unions marched. The Home Secretary refused to accept the petition personally, and the government tried to ignore the increasing protests and petitions from all over the country. However, within a year the Home Secretary had signed a conditional release, but the Tolpuddle men held out for a full and free pardon, which they received in March of 1836. A year later, they returned home.



The London Central Dorchester Committee raised funds for the Martyrs and their families to have farms of their own in Essex, though James Hammett returned to Tolpuddle, where he worked in obscurity as a construction worker. The others, including George Loveless moved to Essex and continued to campaign for political reforms such as enfranchising all men, voting by secret ballot, and equal electoral districts. Property owners in Essex were no more comfortable with the threat of change than those of Dorset had been. An editorial in the Essex Standard said:

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 the Martyrs had remained resolute throughout their ordeal, the threat of being arrested and transported yet again undoubtedly influenced their decision to depart for London, Ontario, where they became prosperous farmers. James and John Loveless both became Methodist ministers there. John Standfield founded a choir, ran a hotel, and eventually became mayor of East London. James Brine married Thomas Standfield’s daughter and died at 90 in 1902. A monument, cooperative housing, and park were dedicated to their memory in Ontario in 1969.


English Exceptionalism then/ American Exceptionalism now:

I often read on contemporary political forums, that the rollback of hard-won rights in the last thirty years is unprecedented. While the process is appalling, I think that there is a lot to be learned from the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ place in a socio-political environment that had much in common with present day America. England then, like America now, wanted total control, both internally and externally. The English ruthlessly colonized much of the world, extracting resources for their own benefit. They were as paranoid about the French as our government is about the Middle East, and likewise built up very expensive military and diplomatic capabilities worldwide to control them, as well as their own expanding empire.

Internally, the rise of mercantilism and capitalism benefitted the few at the expense of the many. Their middle class, like ours, was increasingly seduced by cheap luxuries into ignoring the plight of those who produced them. The poor were dehumanised, and often imprisoned or sent abroad to work for someone else’s benefit, echoing our own prison-industrial complex. More importantly, the rise of England as a world power was paralleled by successive curtailment of rights for the individual. In extreme cases, such as the Highland Clearances in Scotland, people were thrown off the land entirely. Further south life was made so miserable that the poor left the land if they could and worked for pauper’s wages in the mills. If they couldn’t leave, they lived on even less. Anyone who has witnessed the destruction of huge swathes of America’s industrial cities, and the hopelessness and poverty that is left behind can relate.

The current excuse of technical progress being the root cause of our unique circumstances was one that was promoted in 19th century England as well. Industrialisation did improve efficiency, increasingly better transportation and improved communication. Cheap luxury items and pride in technical prowess provided distraction. Despite the extreme environmental degradation experienced during those times, popular sentiment would not have allowed a turn away from industrialisation any more than asking people to give up their computers and mobile phones would garner any sympathy from the majority now.  Luddites and Captain Swing rioters did not succeed for a reason.

However opinions as to how technology is used, and how to ensure individual rights can change over time. Capitalism in all its raw glory is ruthless. Most of us on this forum get that, but we have yet to overcome the inertia of the distracted majority. The trade unionists and socialists like Robert Owen had a steep uphill climb to convince England that their system was unbalanced and unfair. In the end it was the plight of six ordinary farm workers from an obscure village that fired the imagination of the majority and convinced them that political and social change through solidarity was possible. The union made their plight known, and supported their families in their absence. Sympathetic representatives in Parliament made sure the Home Office paid attention. This solidarity lasted over the long haul, and cut across trade and class lines. Our goal should be to build similar alliances across the divides that seem to separate us from those who, like us, are uneasy with the loss of individual rights, the confiscation of property on technicalities, the imprisonment of a large percentage of our population, and the turn toward authoritarianism and universal control which threaten us now.


Additional Sources Referenced: The Peel Web (Thomas cobett and rural economy) (martyrs page)

multiple pages from the Martyr’s Museum in Tolpuddle

and Robert Hughes’ excellent chronicle of early Australian history, The Fatal Shore

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