These articles give some social, legal and political background to the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, highlighting changes in agricultural practice, the poor law and the response of workers to these hardships.
The story of the Martyrs promted lively debate in the pages of the local newspaper. Here are some examples.
Victimisation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs inspired widespread outcry in Britain. Trade unionists and supporters recognised this as an attack on the rights of workers to organise for better conditions and influence in society at large.
The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union called a meeting - attended by more than 10,000 - on 24 March 1834. On 21 April Copenhagen Fields in London was flooded with up to 100,000 trade unionists; they marched to Parliament and delivered a petition signed by 250,000 people.
In response to public outrage, a conditional pardon was granted by June 1835. Pressure mounted as petitions from all over the country were delivered to Parliament. Full and free pardons were granted in March 1836.
In 1834 a group of labourers, who became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, met under a sycamore tree on the village green to discuss these shared hardships. George Loveless made the case for joining a union to strengthen the hand of the workers. Those who joined agreed not to work for less than 10 shillings a week.
Landowners and the government intended to suppress the growth of trade unions and to stifle outbreaks of dissent. The six Tolpuddle Martyrs were arrested on 24 February 1834 and charged with the ‘administration of unlawful oaths’.
The Martyrs were tried at the Dorchester Assizes by Grand Jury in March 1834. The Grand Jury was composed of landed gentlemen who opposed what they saw as seditious attempts by labourers to improve their rights. In this case, the jury also included a number of magistrates who had already signed the arrest warrant.
Depositions were made for the prosecution by Edward Legg and John Lock, both of whom had been invited to join the union, and both of whom then betrayed the Martyrs at trial. All six were sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude in Australia.
This article from 3 April 1834 reports on their conviction and includes an extract from a poem scribbled down by one of Martyrs, George Loveless, upon his conviction.
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