Tolpuddle Old Chapel (1818) is the first significant material trace of four of the six men who were to become famous as the Tolpuddle Martyrs: George Loveless, James Loveless, John Standfield and Thomas Standfield. These families were the driving force of the Methodist movement in Tolpuddle, a small village some eight miles east of Dorchester, in Dorset, and George Loveless and Thomas Standfield were named as Trustees in the foundation of this Wesleyan Chapel. By the early nineteenth century, the rapid growth of Methodism was seen as a threat to the Anglican establishment and the ruling classes: its practices were regarded as dangerously democratic and damaging to the social order. The group of labourers that we now know as the Tolpuddle Martyrs came to fame in 1834. Having formed the union of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers (FSAL) in response to the savage cutting of their weekly wage from nine to six shillings, they were tried on the trumped-up charge of swearing a secret oath at their union meetings. They were sentenced to the maximum penalty of seven years transportation to Australia. While it was not illegal to form a trade union in 1834, many landowners and government ministers were alarmed at the growth of trade unionism, and particularly concerned by its potential expansion into the agricultural sector.
From its inception, Tolpuddle Old Chapel was branded as a radical object. Its origins date to 1810, when a Dissenters’ license was granted to allow Methodist worship in the house of one Thomas Loveless, the father of George and James, and an agricultural labourer in Tolpuddle. The Methodist congregation in the village rapidly grew and a plot of land was purchased for building a chapel in 1818. In the early years of the century, a vociferous Anglican had written of the Methodists, ‘their absurd and vulgar definition of a Church … that it is but a composition of stone and mortar, like other ordinary buildings, is below notice: though I fear it too much answers the intended purpose of creating an indifference among the vulgar for their more authorized and appropriate houses of divine worship’ (A Letter to a country gentleman on the subject of Methodism, 1805). From this perspective, the building of a vernacular Methodist Chapel was in itself an act of radical insolence, all the more so – as in this case – when it was built just a few hundred yards away from the established Anglican Church.
At the chapel’s inaugural service on 13 October 1818, there was a violent anti-Methodist riot. More than 50 people bent on disruption gathered noisily around the Chapel. When the visiting minister’s party prepared to travel home in their carriages, they were jostled and shoved, and the carriages were pelted with mud and stones for two miles of the journey home. This resulted in what was described as a near-fatal injury to the coachman and a ‘severe blow to the head’ of a woman riding alongside him. These incidents gained national attention: the prosecutions against the perpetrators were reported, together with details about the riot itself, in the Salisbury Journal, and subsequently in the London Morning Chronicle and the Manchester Mercury.
The inherent radicalism of Tolpuddle Old Chapel is most sharply perceived through the vilification of Methodism, which intersected with official alarm about involvement of members of the congregation in the FSAL. Immediately after the formation of the union , Sir James Frampton, landowner and JP for Dorset, wrote to Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary , about how to suppress ‘the societies forming among the Agricultural Labourers of a dangerous and alarming kind.’ When Frampton named the convicted men of Tolpuddle in these letters, he took pains to note which of them were Methodists, and further, that they were assisted by George Romaine of Bere Regis, whom he pointedly described as ‘a Methodist Preacher and owner of a meeting House on Bere Heath.’ For Frampton, Methodism and Trade Unionism went hand in hand. Alongside this class-based and political animosity, there was widespread local prejudice against Methodism operating at the level of the everyday. One of the martyrs, George Loveless, had little doubt that the underlying reason for his conviction at the trial in 1834 was the hostility towards his dissenting faith: ‘I am from principle a Dissenter,’ he declared when reflecting on his innocence in his pamphlet, The Victims of Whiggery (1837), ‘and by some, in Tolpuddle, it is considered as the sin of witchcraft.’ He went on to record that, in 1824-5, there were men who were ‘persecuted, banished and not allowed to have employ[ment] if they entered the Wesleyan Chapel at Tolpuddle.’
A dot in the Dorset landscape, marked by a simple chapel, was the site on which a group of agricultural workers came together to claim independence for their faith and the right to unionise in the face of steeply rising costs and a wage cut. From this originary point, the events unfolded which produced the scandalous trial of the Dorchester Labourers (as the Martyrs were originally known). The massive public outcry against their conviction, widely recognised as a transparent pretext for the illegal prosecution of trade unionism, produced one of the largest public protests of the period: a march in London of between 50,000 and 100,000 people – a gathering the size of Peterloo and quite possibly larger. The protesters walked from Copenhagen Fields to Whitehall to present a huge petition to the Office of the Home Secretary, on 21 April 1834. Carried by twelve men, it asked the King to use his powers to remit the sentence. Home Secretary Melbourne refused to meet the deputation or accept the petition on account of the manner of its delivery, although it was subsequently received, put before the King, and its appeal refused.
While the fate of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is etched into popular memory, the chapel faded into obscurity in the decades following their conviction and transportation. It was abandoned as a place of worship some time between 1843 and 1862, in which year the New Methodist Chapel of Tolpuddle was opened nearby. After this, it deteriorated, and was used for agricultural storage before eventually being boarded up in 2005. Numbers of people in the locality only knew the building as a store, and the fact that it was originally a chapel was not widely known, even though it was Grade II* listed and categorised as a building at risk by Historic England. In 2015, a volunteer group formed the Tolpuddle Old Chapel Trust (TOCT) – of which I am a member – and over the next six years, the necessary funds were raised for renovation. The mission was to ‘save the legacy of the Martyrs’ and to tell the story of the building through the ages. The chapel is a rare survival of a genuine vernacular chapel; most have either disappeared or were demolished in nineteenth-century rebuilds.
There are no records of the construction. This was not a chapel built from funds granted by the Wesleyan movement; it was built quite literally out of the earth on which it stands, and by the people who dug and ploughed it. No-one knows how it was resourced and the conjecture has to be that money was collected, and that some materials were donated, begged or simply found. A number of the original architectural features were erased or disguised as the building was repaired and repurposed in the nineteenth century: cobbles were put over the earthen floor, and the thatch was replaced with tiles. But now, as the building is partially stripped back for the purposes of renovation, we rediscover the elements of its making: fragments of flint and slate in a floor-level brick course to prevent rising damp, remains of mysterious fixtures in the walls, signs of old lime-wash and other wall coverings, a solid brick and stone base to support the thick cob.
Every feature speaks of the skills and industry of the artisan and their relation to local resources. Cob samples have been analysed for their chalk composition, and an exact match was found in an old chalk-pit in Affpuddle, just a mile away; now again being used for the cob repairs. The bricks were almost certainly from local small-scale brickworks (a number figure on old maps of the area) and were possibly seconds or surplus stock. As we examine the material composition of the Chapel, we also discover the innate strength and resolve of its making. This was a building made to last: thick-walled, squat and sturdy, its materials hewn, stacked, mortared and plastered, doubtless fortified by a determination for religious independence in which strength and endurance predominated over aesthetics and architectural design.
It is not the intention that Tolpuddle Old Chapel is to be preserved as a relic, or an inert piece of heritage. The Trust understands the building as one which ‘reflects the lives and hardships of the people that built it and their desire for change.’ Its history, we believe, ‘speaks of education, social justice, tolerance and individual liberty.’ Tolpuddle Old Chapel will be open to visitors and will be used as a community and educational resource. We are working with local primary schools on a range of projects which tell the story of the village in this period and engage with ideas of fairness, equality, and empathy. A website will make educational and historical resources more widely available. The Chapel will also be open to all as a ‘quiet place’ of contemplation and reflection. The renovation work began in November 2021 and should be finished in the winter of 2022, when – hopefully – ‘this vulgar definition of a church’ will be given the recognition that its rich and defiant history deserves.