The Tolpuddle Martyrs

We’re going back to the England of the 1830s, with all its romance, not to meniton its mud and its misery. But first, a health and safety warning, because England—or Britain, really—of the twenty-first century just loves its health and safety warnings: Our trip will be heavy on mud and misery and light on romance. We’ll be in a rural area. If you’re not familiar with farm animals, please understand that they are not pets. Above all, do not pet the bull. He has no sense of humor, even if you borrow the U from bll and move in into humour. Please stay with the group. Waterproof shoes are not required but are recommended. Above all, don’t do anything stupid.

Good, with that out of the way, here we are in the 1830s and, as a newspaper article from the British Library archive puts it, the life of an English farmworker is “dismal. Rent and a basic diet of tea, bread and potatoes would cost a typical family 13 shillings a week. But exploitative landowners, given land by the Enclosures, paid their workers as little as 9, 8, even 7 shillings.”

Screamingly irrelevant photo: a geranium.

Enclosures? You can catch up on that by going to an earlier post about hedges, which were used to enclose the fields. Scroll down to the section on history, then scroll another few paragraphs below the subhead and you’ll find a bit about enclosure. I’ve been on a history binge lately.

Or you can skip the background and simply understand that farmworkers weren’t getting paid enough to keep their families fed a very minimal diet of starch and caffeine.
Helping produce this general misery were the Corn Laws, which were in force from 1815 to 1846. They taxed and restricted the import of grain, keeping prices high. That was great if you were selling the stuff and a disaster if you were trying to buy it on 9 shillings a week. Or on 7. (Corn, just so this makes sense to everyone–or as to many people as I can manage, anyway–is British for grain.)

Not many years before the time we’re visiting, the Swing Rebellion had swept through southern and southwestern England. Rebellious farm workers and craftsmen demanded higher pay, lower tithes, an end to rural unemployment, and a few other things along those lines. Barns were burned. Farmers were threatened. The well-fed (to generalize) were frightened. The rebellion ended with 19 executions, 500 people transported, and none of the rebels’ demands met.

It was a perfect set-up for another uprising.

But that’s not what happened. What took place in Tolpuddle isn’t the sort of tale that makes a good action movie. No barns were burned. No one went to a Shao Lin temple to meditate for six years and emerge able to do flying kicks and avenge the evil landowner who murdered their mother/father/entire family/pet bull.

There weren’t even any drunken fistfights. The central people involved were Methodists, which meant they didn’t drink.

What happened was that in 1833, in Tolpuddle—a village in Dorset—a handful of men founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, whose goal was to stop the lowering of agricultural wages. It wasn’t an uprising, it was an attempt to organize.

What’s a friendly society? A mutual aid group. I haven’t been able to date the first ones in Britain, but one website dates them, with criminal vagueness, to the Industrial Revolution. Most were very local, although a few started out that way and then expanded. Some involved no more than a few families. Members paid in a small amount each month and could count on help if someone got sick or died—or sometimes even if a cow died, which when a family’s livelihood hung by so thin a thread could be almost as catastrophic as a wage-earner dying.

This was a time when most people had somewhere between very little and nothing at all to fall back on. If things went wrong, they could become vagrants—homeless beggars. And if that doesn’t sound bad enough, vagrancy was illegal. So, as far as I can tell, was compassion except in small and humiliating doses. What help was offered came from the parish, which translates to local government, and it was miserly, punitive, and given at the discretion of the local gentry.

To modern ears, the Tolpuddle group sounds more like a union than a friendly society, but the categories were still fluid. And the organizers may well have thought that putting together a friendly society was safer than organizing a union. Unions had been illegal as recently as 1824 and were still considered reckless, revolutionary, dangerous, and several other scary adjectives.

Modern writers tend to talk about the group as a union. It’s always simpler in retrospect.

The group’s members took an oath that if any master reduced wages, all members of the society would walk out. They also swore not to tell anyone the group’s secrets and agreed that anyone who did would be hunted out of the society, not just locally but throughout the country.  As far as I can tell, the group was strictly local, but that’s the wording they used. They had ambitions, I guess.

Initiates also had to wish that their souls would be “plunged into eternity” if they broke their oath. Within three months, some 40 people had sworn, and at least one of them must have plunged his soul into eternity, because a local landowner and magistrate, Squire Frampton, heard whispers about the group and wrote to the home secretary for advice about how to respond. The home secretary recommended prosecuting the leaders under the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797, an obscure law that outlawed secret oaths.

To understand the squire and the home secretary’s reaction, remember that not only was the Swing Rebellion in the very recent past, the French Revolution was also still alive in their minds. I have no idea if it was alive in the minds of Tolpuddle’s farmworkers, but the people who considered themselves the farmworkers’ betters were haunted by the fear that something similar could happen in England’s green and hungry land.

In February 1834, three months after its founding, six members of the friendly society were arrested. As far as I can establish, the group had done nothing more dangerous than gather members, swear oaths, and exist. But swear a secret oath they had, and all six were convicted and transported to Australia. The jury, the BBC notes, was made up of “farmers and the employers of the labourers under trial.”

It was all very efficient, and it backfired. After the conviction, the six became popular heroes, known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. A huge meeting and a march were held in their defense (one site calls it the first mass trade union protest) and a petition for their pardon gathered 800,000 signatures. And not on the internet. Remember paper? Copies of the petition had to be passed from hand to hand and then delivered physically to whoever it was addressed to in government. And since quills–or even birds–hadn’t been invented yet, it had to be signed with sharpened dinosaur bones.

The most imaginative part of the campaign involved a call to prosecute the Duke of Cumberland—who just happened to be the King’s brother—under the Unlawful Oaths Act, since as head of the Orange Lodges of Freemasons he’d also taken a secret oath. Hey, if one secret oath was illegal, weren’t they all?

In the meantime, the families of the transported men were destitute and applied to the parish for relief. The people deciding whether they were worthy of it included none other than the man who’d set the prosecution in motion, Squire Frampton. To no one’s surprise, they were turned down. Unions across the country raised money to sustain them.

In 1836, the six were pardoned and returned to England. Only one, James Hammett, re-settled in Tolpuddle. The other five eventually emigrated to Canada, which must have promised a kind of freedom they couldn’t imagine in Dorset, and in one of those little ironies that history’s so good at, they settled on land which would have been snatched from its original settlers, the Indians.

So who were the Tolpuddle Martyrs? Five of the six were Methodists, and their leader, George Loveless, wasn’t just a Methodist but a preacher. Methodism had begun in the previous century and had become a powerful force among working people. It preached the priesthood of all believers, and that led some of those believers to decide that if god valued them, so should their employers.

The sixth, Hammett, wasn’t a Methodist, hadn’t been at the initiation ceremony, didn’t move to Canada, and had been arrested once before, for theft. He may (or may not–who can tell at this point?) have allowed himself to be convicted to protect his brother. He seems to have been an outsider in an otherwise tight-knit group.

After the Tolpuddle prosecution, the National Archive says, “the harsh sentences discouraged other workers from joining trade unions, and many of the nationwide organisations, including the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, collapsed.” But in spite of that, union memebership continued to grow and by the 1850s and 1860s trade unionism was again on the rise.

Today, the Tolpuddle Martyrs are commemorated by a museum and a yearly festival. I haven’t gone, but judging from the festival posters it encompasses sober political discussion, open mics, and concerts by groups that this year included the Barstool Preachers.

I just had to work their name in. I doubt the five Tolpuddle Methodists would have approved.

But we’ve been serious long enough, so let’s talk about place names: Before we’d heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, my partner and I drove through the area reading the signs that pointed to nearby towns and villages and laughing hard enough to make ourselves a hazard on the road. In addition to Tolpuddle, we found Affpuddle, Briantspuddle, Piddlehinton, Piddletrenthide, Puddletown, the River Piddle, Tincleton, and Throop.

Throop didn’t fit the theme, but somehow that only made it funnier.

My friend Deb swears that Little Piddle, Upper Piddle, and Lower Piddle are around there somewhere. I don’t doubt that she’s right but we, sadly, missed them.

My thanks to Emma Cownie for mentioning the impact of the Corn Laws on food prices in this period. And to Richard for dropping me a line about Lord Byron’s speech about frame breakers. I haven’t gotten my claws into that yet, but if you have no idea what I’m talking about (and why would you?), it’ll all make sense eventually.

68 thoughts on “The Tolpuddle Martyrs

  1. Really glad to see this – popular (aka poor people’s) protest is so often overlooked by mainstream teachers and textbooks of our ‘history’.
    I went on a Peterloo walk in Manchester a couple of years ago – August next year is its 200th anniversary. I searched and it doesn’t seem you have written about it so forgive me if I missed it and this is all a bit, yeah, I know, but I have a bee in my Liberty Bonnet about it! A major event in England’s political story, it is not mentioned in the citizenship history (as you may know) my now split-personality-US/Brit-husband told me.
    Many Labour followers will recognise what Shelley wrote after the news of the massacre came out:
    Rise, like lions after slumber
    In unvanquishable number!
    Shake your chains to earth like dew
    Which in sleep had fallen on you:
    Ye are many—they are few!’
    If ever you make it to Manchester it’s well worth doing the walk with a guide. There is so little to see it’s shaming – but a memorial is on its way and of course Spike Lee’s new film is now out. There’s also an annual gathering usually with one or two famous lefties like Maxine Peake.
    Are you going to publish all these one day???? I mean, as an illustrated book? I could see your historical posts with cartoons in pen/pencil and ink in black and white… Or comic book format…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I haven’t written about Peterloo yet but do have it in mind to do. I try not to do too many similar posts too close together, so I’ll probably wait a bit. And you’re right, it’s not on the citizenship test. Popular protest was pretty much invisible in US history classes when I was a kid. The Civil Rights movement has made it into the textbooks, I think, but in such a sanitized way that I can’t imagine anyone feeling (or, god forbid, thinking) much about it. You know how it goes.

      Am I going to publish these? I’d fuckin’ love to, and a small press was interested but I wrestled with how to make it work and lost the battle. I just couldn’t find a way to make the stuff I was writing work as a book. Your idea opens that back up. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m trying to finish a novel right now–one that’s resisted all attempts to pull it together at the end–but after that I’ll come back to this. Again, thanks.

      Liked by 2 people

              • I just trolled back to the comments to try to figure out what I was or wasn’t saying no to and couldn’t find it. So the definitive answer is maybe. But your friends are geniuses.

                And having posted this, I found out it wasn’t even me who said that. What the hell, I’ll leave my misplaced comment anyway. Why tamper with things just because I got them wrong?

                Liked by 2 people

              • The post is a curious thing.
                A birthday card from Australia took three months to arrive…..most stuff from the U.K. arrives within about a month…though outgoing is another matter. If it is routed via Germany it gets there, if via the U.S.A. it does not, and there is no way of knowing which way it will be travelling.
                Anything from China will be held in customs for collection…this is a pain as it means going to San Jose, paying a holding fee – who asked the buggers to hold it, – producing an invoice,, having the package opened in front of you, paying the tax they estimate at a separate desk and waiting again for it to be delivered to you…
                Other stuff might or might not be held in customs….it is a lottery, so I would not chance one book on its own as, thought there is no duty, i might well still have to go through the customs ritual to retrieve it.

                Mark you, France was not much better….

                Liked by 2 people

              • Britain randomly stops some packages from abroad, randomly decides how much you owe for the privilege of receiving it, and then (and this is what particularly pisses me off) charges you something in the neighborhood of £15 in addition for the service.

                Liked by 2 people

              • The holding charge here is about the equivalent of five quid…..
                I am tempted to ask the Belgian cousins to send a parcel containg Herve or Brussels cheese….labelled as something inert.
                They will, of course, be confiscated as an unauthorised food import but given the snail like speed of customs they will have plenty of time in which to poison the atmosphere of the whole office complex…

                Liked by 2 people

              • My brother in law decided to send back (oh why oh why) a scarf I had sent my mother in law as she thought it was too big and the care home people would steal it (yeah) and when it arrived I had to pay £13 pounds import duty, because my brother in law (sigh) had checked ‘merchandise’ on the customs declaration instead of ‘gift’. If you have friends sending stuff from the US tell them NEVER to check ‘merchandise’ and if they must, not to exaggerate how much they paid of it in an attempt to impress anyone!!

                Liked by 2 people

      • I think the puddle and piddle thing might be about the presence, or lack of, water in the area. We take it for granted that we’ll get a never-ending stream of water from our taps, but back when those villages first came into being, there were no taps and you got water from where you could find it. Villages therefore developed near to good supplies of water, but even though Britain is a pretty wet place much of the time, water supplies can vary according to both weather and geology.

        For example, in Southern England, you often find a line of villages sited on the clay land at the foot of a chalk escarpment. This is where springs emerge from the porous chalk rock onto the impermeable clay. Up on the escarpment itself water is much scarcer, especially in summer, and what villages there are up there often have to get their water from quite deep wells.

        Dorset county is a mixture of extensive chalklands, clay vales, and, in the west a complex mixture of Jurassic rocks. I haven’t checked on a geological map, but I suspect the puddle and piddle villages are located on, or near, the clay vales.

        There are also several Dorset villages called Winterbourne something, such as Winterbourne Abbas. These are situated on the chalk uplands next to streams, which are called bournes in the chalk country. The “winter” in Winterbourne refers to the fact that these bournes only flow during the winter when rainfall is heaver and the surround chalk becomes wetter. During the summer, when there is less rain, the streams tend to dry up completely.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Great stuff–both the geology and the word origin. I wondered, in passing, where Winterbourne came from but hadn’t thought to see if I could actually find out.

          My first impulse by way of explaining the puddles and piddles was to say, Well, there’s a Piddle River and that explains the name, but it doesn’t really explain anything. Why call the river Piddle? Unless, of course, it’s a piddling little thing, which is always possible.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. We used to drive through the Puddles and Piddles on the way to and from Cornwall every year when I was a child. I can’t remember when I first heard about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but it must have been when I was still going down there (i.e. before I stopped going on holiday with my parents), because I remember thinking about them when we drove through. We might have been taught about them at school, or there might have been something on the telly about them. On the other hand, I only learned about the Peterloo Massacre relatively recently.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Teacher’s had a lot more freedom in those days. If they thought you needed to know about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, they told you about them. One of my junior school teachers taught us about the trade union movement. Perhaps he was the one who told us about the Martyrs.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I seem to remember some standardizer saying that standardization would make sure every kid got a good education. Instead, it seems to have leveled things out to, at best, the middle level. Even if no one gets left behind (which I doubt), no one’s moving very fast. Grumble, grumble, grumble. Sorry, that wasn’t the topic, was it? I was lucky enough to pick up trade union history from my parents and their bookshelves. Not a word was spent on it at school.

          Liked by 2 people

            • Tambien! (Of course things could have been brought to *my* parents’ standard: Everybody does English, French, Spanish, AND German from kindergarten, and after age six anyone capable of reading the school reading book aloud may be held responsible for reading history, science, medicine, or even theology–just any old thing the parents/teachers’ adult co-workers aren’t reading because they OBviously were not taught to like it from childhood, and this must not happen to the children. I think my mind is actually pretty average with talents for typing and spelling, and suspect most average kids would have risen to such academic challenges too. But that would hurt the real dullards’ little feelings.)

              Liked by 1 person

              • I’m not entirely sure this is relevant but I think it is: I read a–well, comment I guess, recently which argued that praising a kid for being smart does no particular good. Praising a kid of working hard, though? That shows results.


  3. Growing up in an industrial town (Pittsburgh) we learned a lot about the early suffering of the people in the unions, but only the local ones. I was out of school before learning that there were unions in other countries. Or perhaps I was daydreaming that day. I must have also been daydreaming when in our (Methodist) church and Sunday School – I didn’t get the word about not drinking. I did notice that we used grape juice, not wine for communion, but we didn’t have it that often and we did have Mr. Welch, so… ( ).

    So, this brings me to my question for the Oracle of England. Was there a temperance movement in England?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, Carrie Nation never got over here, at least as far as I know, but the Methodists–let’s put it this way: You’d have had to be daydreaming 105% of the time to have missed the anti-liquor message. They never did have Prohibition here, though.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Your Health and Safety injunction not to do anything stupid left me out of your cozy little tour at the gate. But I ran alongside and peeked. And that’s how I know:

    a) that petunia wasn’t screaming at all, it was perfectly silent, all except for that one little burp

    b) Not many know that the infamous “corn laws” whose misinterpretation caused such massive societal discombuberation were actually promulgated in an attempt to lift the humor of the day from its, ah, bawdy underpinnings. They failed and, as amply evidenced no further from us than your very own blog (yes, yes, and its comments), continue to fail abysmally to this day.

    c) It’s an actual fact (as you know, I don’t dabble in these often) that the infamous American Black Panthers began life as a community aid society to get food and blankets to single moms. As so often occurs, official fear pressured it into militancy.

    d) No. River Piddle? No… 😃😄😅😆

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As you say there is now a large festival of the Labour and Trades union movement every year in mid July.The event had dwindled to a few hundred people until about 10 years ago when the South West regional TUC and their energetic Secretary Nigel Costley turned it into a weekend festival for political debate,music and a chance for those on the left to gather and discuss strategy.

    For the last 3 years Jeremy Corbyn has been a speaker. Initially on the fringe but more recently the key note speaker on the main stage. It is seen by many to commemorate the beginning of the Trades unions movement in the UK which led to the creation of the Labour party.

    From those roots the NHS and welfare state,social housing,minimum wage were created.

    The annual laying of wreaths on the martyrs graves and march through the village passing the Oak tree under which they swore the fateful oath has huge and growing significance in these times of austerity and growing poverty.

    Worth a visit if you have not attended.

    There is also a museum in the village run by the TUC attached to some cottages for farm workers.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I wondered why the name Tolpuddle sounded familiar, and then, as I drove to a nearby city here in Australia, I saw a sign that points the way to the Tolpuddle Goat Farm. Now, I guess I must turn down that road and see why it has that name.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Tolpuddle: a link | Notes from the U.K.

  8. Pingback: Topic Tuesday ~ A little about Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Matchgirls strike – 🐝 The Bee Writes…

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