The Tolpuddle Martyrs
In 1833 a group of farm labourers from the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset, having seen their already low wages of 9s.a week cut to 7s.and then threatened with a further reduction, decided to form a 'Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers'. Led by George Loveless, a Methodist lay preacher, a preliminary meeting was arranged, followed on December 9th by an invitation ceremony on the pattern of other trade societies at which the founder members swore to abide by the Society's rules. When, however, news of these events reached the local magistracy, they were greatly alarmed. Against the background of an almost unprecedented wave of unrest and arson in the rural southern counties which was only just dying away, and stories of mounting strikes and disorder in urban areas, they obtained the approval of the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, to arrest the leaders for taking 'Unlawful Oaths' under a little-used statute of 1797. On February 22nd 1834, Loveless and five other men were arrested and charged. A month later, at the assizes in Dorchester, they were found guilty and given the maximum sentence of seven years transportation. The harsh sentence provoked outrage and protest meetings were held up and down the country. In London an estimated 25,000 workmen, organised by a 'Dorchester Committee', marched through the streets to present a petition to Lord Melbourne in one of the largest peaceful demonstrations seen in the capital during the nineteenth century. Within two years, after considerable pressure, a new Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, saw fit to grant the Dorset labourers a free pardon and permit their return from Australia.