Thousands of people will join the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival in Dorset this weekend to celebrate the birth of trade unionism in Britain.
The Martyrs were six agricultural labourers who formed a union in the early 19th century.
For this crime, they were persecuted by a landlord and sentenced to hard labour in Australia.
The transportations were part of a wider offensive by the ruling class to stop workers from organising collectively.
But the brutal response failed to kill off the fight for union rights—instead the struggle grew.
Britain at the time was seething with revolt.
Strikes were militant and often ended in riots and even insurrections.
With many workers on the brink of starvation, keeping strikers united relied on organisation, argument and often physical force.
Fearing a repeat of the French Revolution of 1789, bosses urged ever harsher anti-union laws.
In many cases, troops were brought in to arrest strike leaders. But huge crowds would gather, free the captured and sack the jails.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs—George Loveless, his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and Thomas’s son John—were not engaged in anything quite so dramatic.
Their crime was to have pledged their loyalty to the Agricultural Labourers’ Friendly Society.
They were charged in 1832 with having taken an illegal oath.
In the eyes of the ruling class, their real crime was to have formed a union to protest about their meagre pay—six shillings a week—and the third wage cut in as many years.
Poverty in rural Britain was harsh. Workers could barely survive. And a deepening recession led many landlords to cut wages even further.
In these circumstances, the union wasn’t simply a political right to be fought for. It was a necessity.
Local landowner James Frampton demanded action against the unions in his area. He wrote to the prime minister, invoking an obscure law from 1797 that banned people from swearing oaths to each other.
The Martyrs were arrested. Judges found them guilty and sentenced them to be transported to Australia for seven years of hard labour.
It was a sentence that few men would expect to survive.
Five Martyrs were shipped in appalling conditions to New South Wales, where they were assigned to landowners as convict labour.
George Loveless, delayed by illness after the trial, later went in chains to Tasmania.
He scribbled a few lines on a scrap of paper. They read:
“God is our guide! from field, from wave,
From plough, from anvil, and from loom;
We come, our country’s rights to save,
And speak a tyrant faction’s doom:
We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!”
His words became a beacon to workers across Britain.
Soon a petition demanding the release of the six was circulating in towns and cities. It reached 800,000 signatures.
There were protest meetings everywhere.
London saw one of the largest marches ever as up to 100,000 workers took to the streets.
The campaign was such that even members of the ruling class felt that they may have gone too far.
They worried about provoking a wider revolt.
Home secretary Lord John Russell backed the demands for the return of the six. In 1836, just two years into their sentence, four of the men were pardoned and returned to England.
The other two returned a few years later.
George Loveless was the first to arrive home, on 13 June 1837. A welcoming committee of workers greeted him.
But George shunned his new-found status and returned to Tolpuddle to write his pamphlet, The Victims of Whiggery.
Workers never forgot the bravery of those who defied the bosses and the landlords to defend the emerging unions.
They reproduced George’s writings for the Chartist movement and they raised thousands of pounds to buy plots of land for the Martyrs in Essex.
The ruling class hoped that repression would stall the unions. But the opposite happened—and a new, even greater round of militancy began.
It’s a lesson that the Tories would do well to understand today.
For more on the Martyrs go to www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk