To coincide with the annual Tolpuddle Martyr’s Festival (19-21 July 2019) Tom Scriven evaluates and contests the memorialisation of the six Dorset labourers who are at the centre of these events. This post is based on the article that Tom published in History Workshop Journal in 2016, which OUP have temporarily made free access for the benefit of our readers.
The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is one of the best-known in British history: in February 1834 six agricultural labourers, working for starvation pay, were arrested for forming a trade union in the tiny Dorset village of Tolpuddle. In what was essentially a show trial they were convicted and sentenced by an openly biased judge, with the explicit support of the Whig government, to the maximum sentence of 7 years’ transportation. A mass-movement of trade unionists soon formed around the country to successfully campaign to bring them back. After receiving a pardon the men were brought home in 1838, their ‘martyrdom’ having prevented the destruction of the budding labour movement.
It is notable, however, that the label of the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ was barely used at all until the 1930s, when the Trades Union Council commemorated the centenary of their arrest. In the preface of the Book of the Martyrs’ of Tolpuddle, the historical narrative published by the TUC in 1934, the Council’s Chairman, Andrew Conley, panegyrised the ‘Six Men’ who won ‘the beginnings of freedom’, sustained only by their ‘passionate conviction that their sacrifices would not be in vain’. As Clare Griffiths has outlined in History Workshop Journal this commemoration was designed to provide an origin story for trade unionism following the defeats of the previous decade (a point reflected on in more detail by Dick Muskett). The result was a narrative of a struggle against injustice followed by redemption, with a large festival in Dorset in the summer of 1934 organised to physically demonstrate how the labour movement had built upon these sacrifices to become a vital and powerful force. From this point on the notion of their martyrdom was sustained, and was explicitly defended by Joyce Marlow in her 1974 book The Tolpuddle Martyrs, which remains the only substantial history of their case.
The martyrdom narrative is however at its core a misrepresentative depiction of events. Integral to it is the notion of the six men as political quietists; for Marlow, the men had nothing to do with politics, but wanted simply ‘a more just share of the cake’. In fact their articulate and literate leader, George Loveless, was already a political radical, familiar with the agitation between 1830 and 1832 that had produced the Reform Act. A quote from his own account of the case, The Victims of Whiggery, reveals that he was probably a reader of early socialist texts, and very likely also Thomas Paine. In Loveless’s words he was part of a working-class who:
…see that labour is the source of wealth, and that ‘if there be any true definition of property, it is that which defines it as the thing which man creates by his own labour’; that all men are born naturally free, and that all have an unalienable right to receive a sufficient maintenance from the land that gave them birth; that they are kept in poverty and degradation by those who, living in luxury and idleness upon the fruits of their labour, tell the working man his portion is to labour, to suffer, and to die.
While in the martyrdom narrative Loveless was inducted into trade unionism by agents of Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, in reality the Tolpuddle union pre-dated the existence of the GNCTU. Loveless was instead well-acquainted with unionism from his brothers, both unionised Flax Dressers. The two delegates who visited Tolpuddle to provide a plan of organisation were actually comrades of Robert Loveless, who lived in London; the other brother, John, still lived in Dorset and also travelled to Tolpuddle to discuss the new union. It is unsurprising, then, that the Tolpuddle union, named the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, actually expanded into numerous villages covering an area of several miles. Rather than somewhat naïve innocents, firstly taught unionism and then rescued by the artisans and skilled proletarians of London and the north, these men were capable organisers who founded a significant body.
Because its focal starting-point is the arrest and trial of the six men, the martyrdom narrative also does not consider in any sustained way the broader agitation of which the ‘martyrs’ were a smaller part. Loveless was clear that in Dorset since 1831-32 ‘there was a general movement of the working classes for an increase of wages’. By this he located his organising in the movement that had developed in the aftermath of the Swing Riots: a series of protests, strikes, and riots organised by agricultural labourers in the winter of 1830-31. These protests ended with substantial wage increases to as much as 10-11s. a week alongside other victories. By spring 1831 these agreements had been abandoned by the landlords and employers, and the ‘general movement’ that Loveless spoke of was an attempt to negotiate their reinstatement in meetings in which he participated as an elected representative. When the wage dropped to 6s. it was obvious a more formal organisation – a trade union – was required to continue the campaign to restore the gains of the Swing protests.
The most serious omission of the martyrdom narrative, however, is the story of when the six men returned; the denouement to Bill Douglas’s film Comrades, for instance, ends emotionally with the vindicated ‘martyrs’ being feted at a public meeting in London. Terminating the story here ignores the fact they also immediately restarted their agitation, with Loveless returning to Dorset and working with several local veterans of the FSAL to re-found the union, which was probably larger in 1838 than it had been in 1834. By the autumn Robert Hartwell, a London compositor and key leader of the nascent Chartist agitation for universal suffrage returned to help these unions reform as explicitly Chartist trade unions. In this he worked closely with two of the ‘martyrs’ – Thomas and John Standfield – and brought with him addresses from Loveless, who now lived in Essex, which were postered on walls and handed out to the labourers. These Chartist trade unions, along with a sizeable number of women’s Chartist associations, represented the most effective political organising of agricultural labourers of the entire Chartist period.
By stripping them of their militancy, organisational acumen, and politics, the martyrdom story made possible the travesty of the Bishop of London comparing them to Margaret Thatcher in his oration at her funeral. To contemporaries the Martyrs were known as the Dorchester Labourers, a name that summed up the two most pertinent aspects of the case: the location of their trial, conviction, and sentence, and their place within a broader movement of the working class. These men and women were in no-way apolitical and bewildered victims, saved by industrial workers. Instead, in the words of Loveless, they had resolved that ‘nothing will be done to relieve the distress of the working classes, unless they take it into their own hands’, and went on to do precisely that.