Nine miles east of Dorchester on the road to Poole lies the small Dorset village of Tolpuddle one of the most famous villages in the world. Violence on picket lines and bloody battles between striking workers and police would seem to have little in common with this quiet little village, yet it was beneath a giant sycamore at Tolpuddle that Trade Unionism in England had its beginnings .
In 1830 the wage of an agricultural labourer was nine shillings. In the following years the wage was reduced to eight shillings, and then to seven. In 1834, the workers were faced with the fact of their wages being reduced to six shillings. It was against this background, sometime between 1831 and 1833, (the precise date being unclear) that the men of Tolpuddle started up a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers (F.S.A.L.).
Inspired by George Loveless, a farm labourer, the society grew rapidly through the winter months, and so it was agreed that in the Spring the men would not accept any work for less than 10 shillings a week. Scared of the repetition of the rural unrest which had spread across Southern England in 1830, the authorities ordered the arrest of six men: James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, James Loveless (George's brother), George's brother in-law, Thomas Standfield and his son, John Standfield.
In March 1834 the six were arrested for unlawful assembly and charged with 'administering unlawful oaths'. Although the Trade Union was perfectly legal they had made the mistake on its formation of taking a pledge of loyalty. The Unlawful Oaths Act had been passed in 1797 to deal with a naval mutiny, but never repealed. It was for breaking this law that they were brought for trial at the Dorchester Assizes.
During the trial John Toomer, (a local farmer), described how he found union rules in a box in the house of George Loveless. As expected the jury, (which included John Bond, John H.Calcraft, James C.Flyer, George Pickard Junior and Nathaniel Bond), found them all guilty as charged despite the fact that James Hammet (22), although a member of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, had not been present at the meeting.
The judge under pressure from the government of the day sentenced sent George Loveless and his companions to seven years transportation to the penal colony in New South Wales, Australia, 'not for anything they had done, but as an example to others'.
However the six men had became popular heroes, and a large protest movement formed. One of their supporters Lord John Russell in his argument to the Prime minister, Lord Melbourne to pardon the Tolpuddle Martyrs stated "that if being members of a secret society and administering secret oaths was a crime, the reactionary Duke of Cumberland as head of the Orange Lodges was equally deserving of transportation".
In March 1836, the Government was forced to remit the sentences in the face of public pressure. Only one of the six, James Hammett settled again in Tolpuddle, where he died in 1891. His grave is in the churchyard. Among the others, three emigrated to London, Ontario, Canada, where John Standfield eventually became the Mayor of his district. James Brine married Elizabeth, John Standfield's sister in1839. Their descendents live there today and the name of Tolpuddle is remembered in several local organisations..
The Tolpuddle Martyrs contributed a proud chapter in the history of Trade Unionism and in 1934 on the centenary of their trial, the The Trades Union Congress (TUC) erected six memorial cottages in the village and founded the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum. The house of Thomas Standfield, where the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers met can still be seen in the village. The Dorchester court, built in 1796/7, in which the Martyrs were tried is now open to the public as part of West Dorset District Council's headquarters.
Once a year, in July the village is host to a major gathering and march of Trades Union members, leading socialist politicians, under colourful banners, march past the green where a commemorative seat and shelter was erected in 1934 by the wealthy London draper Sir Ernest Debenham. All that remains of the giant sycamore tree under which the martyrs used to meet is a stump, the rest of the tree having been removed for safety reasons.