On 19th March 1834, six men from rural Dorset in England were sentenced to seven years’ transportation to a penal colony in Australia.
178 years later, on the same day, I visited the museum set up to commemorate their lives.
The museum is situated in a small village called Tolpuddle, and is run by the Trade Union Congress. It is known locally as the 'red end' of the village!
The Museum stands in the centre of a row of six Memorial Cottages built in 1934 by the Co-operative Wholesale Society, to mark the centenary of the infamous trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
Driving through along the country lanes into Tolpuddle, there is still a feudal feel. Though of course thankfully much has changed.
In the days of the 'Tolpuddle Martyrs', slavery still existed in a number of British colonies, principally in the West Indies.
The Slavery Abolishon Bill was passed on 29th August 1833 but did not come into force until the 1 August 1834, when slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire.
People Power and Threats to the Status Quo
Primitive unions emerged in the eighteenth century; workers started to collaborate for protection against their employers. Such combinations were viewed with grave suspicion by the employers and the government
The existence of 'friendly societies' was given legal recognition in 1793. These organisations provided insurance for their members against injury, unemployment and death. This aspect of their work was tolerated. Of more questionable legality was their accumulation of funds which could be used to provide strike pay.
There still survived amongst the propertied classes a fear of secret societies and revolutionary activity which had existed in the ranks of those who possessed wealth ever since the English civil wars of the 17th century. The French revolution (1789–1799) was extremely fresh in the minds of the aristocracy, the gentry and the church, and government policy hardened.
In 1799 trade unions were effectively banned, due to a law which made it illegal for workers to join together to press their employers for shorter hours or may pay.
In 1825, Trade Unions had in theory become legal again. However, the rights of trade unions were narrowly defined as meeting to bargain over wages and conditions. Anything outside these limits was liable to prosecution as criminal conspiracy in restraint of trade.
Increasing social turmoil and agitation resulted in the reform of the electoral system in 1832. At the same time, the working classes began to organise and to form trade unions.
In 1834, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union of Great Britain and Ireland (GNCTU) was established. Well over half a million members were enrolled, thereby causing profound alarm amongst the propertied classes. A wave of millenarian and utopian feeling swept through the rural and urban working classes.
Women Workers Included
The Union was designed to include as many trades as possible including those associated with women workers such as bonnet-makers and there were branches of the GNCTU consisting of women workers.
Initially the major aim of the GNCTU was to establish a strike fund to assist its members but it quickly moved on to the idea of a 'great national holiday' or national strike.
There was plenty for the labourers to protest about at this time. With their families, many were being pushed down into poverty and despair. William Cobbett in his Rural Rides summed up what he observed at first hand: "Their dwellings are little better than pig-beds, and their looks indicate that their food is not nearly equal to that of a pig...in my life I never saw human wretchedness equal to this..."
Ruling Classes Unnerved By 'Impeccable, Respectable' Methodists
In the village of Tolpuddle, Dorset, UK, a group of farm labourers and a methodist minister formed a society in 1831 to campaign for better wages and protest the conditions of rural workers.
They called it the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers (FSAL). Gradually, they grew in number and strength. In 1834, the group became a branch of the GNCTU and went on strike, demanding increased wages. Their strike created a lot of interest throughout rural southern England.
Their leaders were the brothers James and George Loveless (sometimes written Lovelace). They were nonconformist Christians of impeccable respectability who ardently believed that urgent, peaceful action was needed to improve the wages and conditions of agricultural workers and saw membership of the GNCTU as a step in that direction.
It was unfortunate for them that the ruling class were feeling extremely jittery at the time.
Charged & Sentenced Under Obscure 'Unlawful Oaths' Act
In March 1834, six of the FSAL members were arrested for unlawful assembly and charged with 'administering unlawful oaths'. The deal with a navy officers rebelling against authority. The obscure 'Unlawful Oaths Act' had been passed in 1797, to prevent mutiny in the navy, and made the swearing of pledges of loyalty illegal
Local squire James Frampton, who had forced farm-worker pay down and was about to do so again, learned of their dealings, and using the obscure law against taking such oaths had them arrested and tried.
The trial was a travesty: the jury included Frampton, his son, step-brother, and magistrates who had concocted the warrant under which Loveless and his friends were detained. The foreman was related to Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary who had suggested the arcane route to exploit in order to try the group. One jury member was found to be a Methodist and was hastily discharged from duty. Witnesses for the prosecution were allowed to give statements under oath but the labourers were not allowed to speak up in their own defence. It was decided to despatch a High Court Judge to try the men.
The jury found them all guilty as charged. On 19th March 1834, the judge, under pressure from the Government, sentenced the six men to seven years transportation to the penal colony in New South Wales, Australia.
Popular Heroes and Mass Demonstrations
Such was the furore surrounding the fixed trial and harsh sentence that they became popular heroes.
Thousands of people marched through London and many more, throughout the country, organised petitions and protest meetings to demand their freedom. A total of 800,000 signed petitions.
As news of the sentence spread, the fledgling trade union movement began to organise a campaign for their release. Within a few days, on 24th March 1834, there was a Grand Meeting of the Working Classes, called by the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union on the instigation of Robert Owen. The meeting was attended by over 10,000 people: it was just the beginning. The agitation spread and grew. The London Central Dorchester Committee was formed to campaign for the men’s pardon.
A vast demonstration took place on 21st April 1834.
Up to 100,000 people assembled in Copenhagen Fields near King’s Cross in London. Fearing disorder, the Government took extraordinary precautions. Lifeguards, the Household Cavalry, detachments of Lancers, two troops of Dragoons, eight battalions of infantry and 29 pieces of ordnance or cannon were mustered. More than 5,000 special constables were sworn in.
A grand procession with banners flying marched to Parliament in strict discipline. Loud cheers came from spectators lining the streets and crowding the roof tops. At Whitehall the petition, borne on the shoulders of twelve unionists, was taken to the office of the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne. He hid behind his curtains and refused to accept the massive petition.
The Government tried to resist the mounting protest but the agitation for the men’s release was maintained. William Cobbett, Joseph Hume, Thomas Wakeley and other MPs kept the question constantly before Parliament.
The sentencing, then, was a vital part of that backlash by property against popular discontent and the stirrings of the world’s first proletariat, the working-classes of industrial Britain. Conversely, it was the ability of the working-class to mobilize, particularly in a great procession through London, that sparked an effective protest that ultimately led to the pardon, release and return of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
Conditional Pardon Was Not Enough
The government was clearly surprised by the volume of protest and two years later it was deemed prudent to bring the men back from Australia with a royal pardon. This was a calculated move to behead a source of grievance that might otherwise become uncontrollable.
By June 1835, ten months after the Martyrs' arrival in penal colonies, conditional pardons had been granted by Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary.
Thomas Wakley's campaign continued. He presented 16 further petitions to Parliament. There was nationwide agitation. Conditional pardons were not good enough.
The Tolpuddle men refused to accept compromises and after further pressure, the Government agreed on 14th March 1836 that all the men should have a full and free pardon.
First Victory for Trade Unions
In 1836, with the support of a new Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, and in response to public pressure, they were pardoned.
Trade unions had won and survived their first big challenge. The six farm workers from Tolpuddle were on their way home as free men.
In 1838 the men were guests at a banquet in London and huge numbers turned out to cheer them as they paraded through the streets to the strains of a band playing 'See the Conquering Hero comes.'
Laws relating to trade unions were improved.
Even today, union leaders worldwide come to the small village in Dorset to pay their respects to the six at the annual unions festival.
A name etched into the collective consciousness of the labour and trade union movement is that of the 'Tolpuddle Martyrs'.
Once a year, in July the village is host to a major gathering and march of Trades Union members.
Does this story have any particular relevance to women's issues today?
Yes, I think it does. At least, my visit to the museum certainly got me thinking.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, I was told, is known locally as being in the 'red end' of the village. Rather than taking pride in local rural heritage, the Tolpuddle Martyrs are still viewed by many as something of an embarrassment.
There is still a fear of socialist uprisings, a fear of the power of the masses.
The Women's Movement
Back in history, the women's movement was associated with socialism, with anti-capitalism. Even with communism.
And I would go so far as to suggest that the women's movement is held back by a deep-seated fear of anti-capitalist uprisings.
When I was researching International Women's Day, I came across two interesting articles by Lenin, originally published in the Russian newspaper Pravda.
On International Women's Day in 1920, Lenin wrote:
"..capitalism cannot be consistent even with regard to formal equality...And one of the most flagrant manifestations of this inconsistency is the inferior position of woman compared with man. Not a single bourgeois state, not even the most progressive, republican democratic state, has brought about complete equality of rights.
But the Soviet Republic of Russia promptly wiped out, without any exception, every trace of inequality in the legal status of women, and secured her complete equality in its laws....
The working women s movement has for its objective the fight for the economic and social, and not merely formal, equality of woman.
The following International Women's Day, in 1921, he continued on the same theme:
No party or revolution in the world has ever dreamed of striking so deep at the roots of the oppression and inequality of women as the Soviet, Bolshevik revolution is doing. Over here, in Soviet Russia, no trace is left of any inequality between men and women under the law. The Soviet power has eliminated all there was of the especially disgusting, base and hypocritical inequality in the laws on marriage and the family and inequality in respect of children...
And so on this international working women’s day countless meetings of working women in all countries of the world will send greetings to Soviet Russia.
Is Women's Equality Still Seen as a Threat?
That was nearly a hundred years ago.
Why does this matter today?
It matters because in 2005, the British Trade Union Congress overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for International Women's Day to be designated a public holiday in the United Kingdom. This resolution has so far been ignored by successive governments.
It matters because, somewhere in the 'western' collective consciousness, International Women's Day is still associated with communism; with an anti-capitalist threat to the 'system'.
It matters that equality and fair pay still tend to be seen as radical socialism and perhaps subconsciously represent 'communism' and the enemy.
It matters all the more because it's not a conscious fear. I believe that it has become ingrained in our culture. I don't think that we will see real progress until this is acknowledged.
Suffragettes, Socialism and Communism
It's not so far back in British history that women were viewed almost as terrorists for demanding to have a vote. It wasn't until 1928, almost a 100 years after the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced, that women in the UK were entitled to vote on the same terms as men.
In fact, both Emily and Sylvia Pankhurst, renowned Suffragettes, were for a while supporters of the Communist Party. Sylvia Pankhurst supported the International Women's Peace Congress, held during the war at The Hague. The group continued to move leftwards and hosted the inaugural meeting of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International).
In 1918, Sylvia was invited to Moscow by Lenin. When World War I ended, she had turned her hopes towards the new Russia: seeing communism as the world's future. However, Lenin and Sylvia did not see eye to eye about everything, and she eventually became disillusioned with Communism.
Britain remained suspicious of her, along with many other political figures who had at some time been allied to the Communist Party; in the MI5 Archives is a file dated 1948 discussing strategies for 'Muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst'.
In the 21st century, there is more equality and less poverty in Britain. We are not sent to penal colonies in Australia for protesting, and not imprisoned for wanting to vote.
The F-word and the C-word
However, I can't help wondering how much the underlying sentiments have really changed.
It sometimes feels that we, as women, are feared as much as we were in the Pankhursts' day.
Are women's rights and equality associated with radical socialism?
Is the F-word subconsciously associated with the C-word? Somewhere in the collective subconscious, does feminism equate to communism?
Is there still a fear that if women really have an equal say, if we are equally represented, that capitalism will be turned upside down?
Are women seen as a threat to the system and the status quo?
- Tolpuddle Martyrs website
- Tolpuddle Martyrs - Wikipedia
- 'Tolpuddle Martyrs Sentenced' - Information Britain
- The Tolpuddle Martyrs 15th Anniversary Memorial Oration - Australian Society for the Study fo Labour History
- Tolpuddle Sycamore Did Shelter Martyrs - UK Guardian
- The Tolpuddle Martyrs: trade unions and the state - Socialist Appeal
- William Cobbett - Wikipedia
- History - Tolpuddle Martyrs - ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) Worksite
- Slavery Abolition Act 1833 - Anti-Slavery Society
- English Civil War - Wikipedia
- French Revolution - Wikipedia
- V.I. Lenin - On International Women's Day - 4th March 1920
- V.I. Lenin - International Working Women's Day - 4th March 1921
- The Reform Act 1832 - UK Parliament
- International Women's Day - Wikipedia
- 'Were extreme suffragettes regarded as terrorists?' BBC News - 11th February 2012
- Sylvia Pankhurst - Wikipedia
- Politics & World Affairs - Sylvia Pankhurst.com