Dorchester
The Tolpuddle Martyrs
Dorset DT2 7EH

 

 
The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ were a group of six 19th century agricultural labourers who lived in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle. They were all known to each other and in fact, three of them worked for the same landowner.
 
Despite their humble occupations they were educated men who could read and write. Three of them were Methodists, two being lay preachers. James Hammett was the odd one out, and it is said that he stood in for his young brother John at the trial.
 
Prior to 1770 strip-farming was practised which enabled the rural populace to farm and live off land they cultivated and kept livestock on but between 1770 and 1830 this all changed. The Enclosure Acts permitted landowners to enclose large tracts of land for farming, driving the peasants off the land and effectively condemning them to starvation and deep poverty.
 
Powerful Landowners
The only way to survive was to work for the wealthy landowners who decided what wages they would pay. The landowners got more wealthy and powerful, and the agricultural labourers were at their mercy. Prices were going up and the landowners were reducing wages. In 1830 wages of 9 or 10 shillings a week reduced families to starvation level unless they could be supplemented by working wives and children.
 
As can be imagined, low wages, appalling conditions, hunger and poverty led to a great explosion of anger among the lowest classes. Between 1829 and 1830 the people rose up in protest and rioted – these were called the ‘Swing Riots’. The authorities reacted harshly and throughout England 600 rioters were imprisoned; 500 sentenced to transportation; and 19 executed.
 
The agricultural workers of Tolpuddle were being paid 9 shillings a week, less than other workers in their district. Requests for an increase in their wages were met by refusal and a further reduction.
 
Friendly Society Formed
Six of the farm labourers - George Loveless, James Loveless, Thomas Standfield, John Standfield, James Hammett, and James Brine decided they must band together for greater bargaining power. George was their leader and together they formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers (effectively a trade union).
 
The landowners, led by James Frampton from Moreton, and supported by the government, were determined to squash unions and to control increasing outbreaks of dissent.
 
The Framptons had been Tolpuddle landowners and country gentlemen for generations and did not want their way of life to change. James Frampton passionately believed in Church, Constitution, King and Country, and he feared trade unionism would threaten the power base and wealth of the landed upper classes. He had also witnessed the French Revolution and was determined to suppress any sign of rebellion or opposition whatever the cause.
 
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An Unlawful Oath
In forming their Society the six men had promised to support each other and uphold their ideals, much as the members of Establishment Clubs did, but James Frampton seized upon this to have them arrested on a charge of ‘administering an unlawful oath’. He used an obscure 1797 law applicable to members of the Royal Navy.
 
The men were tried on this spurious charge in the Crown Court in Dorchester. They were convicted and sentenced to 7 years transportation to the penal colony of Australia. A good article, with photo relating to the Old Crown Court is at Web: Tolpuddle Martyrs' - Crown Court
 
An Injustice had Occurred
The Judge knew an injustice had occurred but felt pressured to bring in a guilty verdict by the Government and the powerful landowners. In his judgement he remarked that he was sentencing the men to transportation 'not for anything they had done, but as an example to others'.
 
The injustice of this decision helped turn the group, now known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, into popular heroes.
 
By March 1836 public pressure had reached the point where the government felt compelled to pardon them. During their absence money had been raised to buy leases on farms in Essex for the returning ‘Martyrs’. A plaque at Plymouth’s Mayflower Steps commemorates the return of 5 of the men. James Hammett was the only one who came back later and returned to Tolpuddle where he worked as a builder’s labourer. He is buried in St John’s churchyard.
 
Five Martyrs left for new lives in Canada
The other five continued their union activities in Essex but the continuing pressure from landowners forced them to seek new lives in Canada, where they found contentment as farmers in London, Ontario.
 
Martyrs Biographies
- George Loveless was the leader of the group. He was married with 3 children whom he supported on a ploughman’s wage of 9 shillings a week. He was a Methodist lay preacher and was aged 37 when arrested. He was self-educated, articulate and could write well - he wrote several books on his experiences. After emigrating to Canada he helped to build a Methodist Church at Siloam. He died in 1874 at the age of 77
 
- James Loveless. James was George’s younger brother. He too was married with two children and a Methodist preacher. He was a founder member of the Society and aged 32 when he was arrested. He was singled out by James Frampton as a troublemaker as early as 1830 during local riots at nearby Puddletown. When James Loveless emigrated to Canada he did not take up farming but became sexton to the North Street Methodist Church in London Township, Ontario. He remained so until his death at 65 in February 1873.
 
- John Standfield. John and James Loveless worked on the same farm for several years. When John returned from transportation to Australia he joined James Loveless in Essex and subsequently migrated to Canada. He became Mayor of East London, kept a hotel, ran a shop and founded a choir.
 
- Thomas Standfield. Thomas was married to the Loveless brothers’ sister. At the time of his arrest he was aged 44 (the oldest of the martyrs), had 5 children and another on the way. John Standfield was his eldest son. Thomas was also a Methodist and a co-founder of the Society. Many of their meetings were held in the upstairs room in his cottage in Tolpuddle.
 
On moving to Essex, Thomas and his son John went to Fenner's farm, five miles from the Lovelesses. The family emigrated to Canada two years after the Lovelesses. Thomas died aged 74 in February, 1864 and his wife died soon after. Their graves are next to George and Betsy Loveless in Siloam cemetery.
 
- James Brine. James was only 20 when he was arrested and unmarried. When he returned from transportation and moved to Essex he married John Standfield’s sister, Elizabeth. They went on to have 11 children, four born before they emigrated to Canada. He built the log house which is still a local landmark - the only building associated with the Martyrs left in their adopted country. He died, aged 90, in 1902.
 
- James Hammett. James was different from the rest of the ‘Martyrs’. He was not a Methodist or a paid up member of the Society. He was aged 22 when he was arrested, married with a baby son. He had been imprisoned in 1829 for allegedly stealing some pieces of iron. James had a brother, John, who was a member of the Society and it is said that he accepted arrest on John’s behalf because he was newly married and his wife was about to give birth.
 
James Hammett buried in St John's Churchyard
When James returned from Australia he came home to Tolpuddle and worked as a builder’s labourer. He died in 1891, aged 80. His grave is in the western corner of St John the Evangelist Church churchyard.
 
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