Life as a farm labourer in the early 1800s wasn’t a barrel of laughs. The industrial revolution brought with it machines that sent the price of labour tumbling. Controversial Enclosure Acts meant common land used for centuries by the poor for grazing and growing produce was handed to rich landowners. Many ended up destitute.
Inevitably, some agricultural workers took things into their own hands. In the ‘Swing Riots’, mobs roamed the countryside smashing threshing machines and burning barns.
So landowners weren’t kindly disposed towards those they saw as troublemakers.
It was against this background that six men from Tolpuddle – brothers George and James Loveless, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and his son John – formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers in an attempt to halt the slide in wages. To join, they had to swear an oath of secrecy. It was this that was their undoing.
The local squire, James Frampton, was not amused. He wrote to the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, warning of the seditious meetings taking place. And at the Dorchester Assizes on 18 March 1834, the six were convicted to swearing a secret oath and sentenced to seven years transportation, to work in penal servitude in New South Wales.
There was uproar. 800,000 signed a petition for their release; 100,000 people demonstrated in London; MPs asked questions in the house. It took two years, but the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, finally granted them full pardons. And the principle of workers being allowed to organise themselves was established.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs returned home in 1837. Their supporters had raised enough money to buy them leases on farms in Essex. But they couldn’t settle. Eventually, five of the six emigrated to Canada. The sixth, James Hammett, remained in Dorset, where he became a builder’s labourer.