The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Tolpuddle Rally

Category: Politics

Six men whose fate shook all England were the Tolpuddle Martyrs. They were arrested and then deported to Australia in 1834.

No one could have guessed that when the Tolpuddle parish constable tapped George Loveless on the shoulder and demanded that he accompany him to Dorchester he was Starting a case that was to shake all England. Yet so it was, and its echoes are still rumbling to this day — a century and a half later.

At Dorchester Assizes Loveless and five other farmworkers were charged with administering illegal oaths. But their real crime was that they had formed a trade union in their village. They could not be charged with this, since unions were since the repeal of the Combination Acts, not illegal. At Dorchester Assizes, Lord Justice Williams sentenced all six to the maximum penalty of seven years transportation.

They were simple men and the statement which George Loveless made to the court might have moved anyone: “My Lord, if we have violated any law, it was not done intentionally; we have injuréd no man’s reputation, character, person or property; we were uniting together to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children, from utter degradation and starvation. We challenge any man, or number of men, to prove that we have acted, or intended to act, different from the above statement.’

The whole trade union and radical movement reacted with speed and fury to the challenge. As early as March 24 a huge protest meeting (Robert Owen in the chair) was held at Rathbone Place just off Oxford Street. On March 26 the first of a great tlood of petitions, demanding the quashing of the sentences and the release of the prisoners, was placed before Parliament.

On April 26 one of the greatest and best-organised demonstrations ever seen in London carried to Whitehall, a petition signed by between two and three hundred thousand people. Early in the morning many thousands, largely trade unionists with their banners and insignia, were assembled at Copenhagen Fields, a little to the north of the present King’s Cross Station. From there they marched to Westminster, where the petition was insolently rejected.

By this time the Tolpuddle labourers were well on their way to Australia, and it took two years of agitation before the Government’ was forced, very reluctantly, to grant a pardon and bring them home. But in the end this was accomplished and they received a hero’s welcome on their return.

It was a great victory for the movement against legal fepression, and its wider results were no less noteworthy. The rawness and obvious injustice of the trial made it possible to unite an exceptionally wide cross-section of the people.

The annual marchat Tolpuddle organised by the National Union of Agricultural Workers to commemorate the Tolpuddle Martyrs takes place every year. It is an impressive and moving occasion. There is a short march through Tolpuddle past the Martyr’s tree and then back again to the memorial cottages built by the TUC, where a meeting is held. There is an exhibition at the Tolpuddle cottages, a picnic on the lawns and popular music by the Dorchester silver band.

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