Early Trade Unions in Britain and the The Tolpuddle Martyrs, Changing the Face of Employment Rights

Early Trade Unions in Britain and the The Tolpuddle Martyrs, Changing the Face of Employment Rights

Although in the U.S., today we celebrate Labor Day, was there a like movement in the United Kingdom? Where? When? Its leaders?

Since the 17th Century, skilled workers in Britain organized themselves in what was originally called “guilds” and later referred to as trade union. The Industrial Revolution brought on new and more complicated trade disputes, forcing the government to introduce measures to prevent collective action on the part of the workers. 1799 and again in 1800, the Combinations Acts were passed, making the ability to strike illegal. Workmen could receive up to three months’ imprisonment or two months’ hard labour if they broke these new laws.

Even though these trade unions were under the watchful eye of the government, they were quite widespread in the larger cities. Growing numbers of factory workers joined these associations in their efforts to achieve better wages and working conditions. They were finally legalized in 1824. The Luddite Rebellion manifested itself in workplace militancy. In 1820 an uprising occurred in Scotland when 60,000 workers walked out of factory positions in a “national” strike. It was soon crushed, however. National general unions struggled to form, but they did not go away. Most notably, we discover Robert Owen‘s Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834, which attracted a range of socialists from Owenites to revolutionaries. That organization played a part in the protests after the Tolpuddle Martyrs‘ case, but soon collapsed.

I am certain for many of you know these scenes from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South TV series, and they will perhaps provide you a visual image of what I speak.

























You Tube  image of the cotton mill

An important development of the trade union movement in Wales was the Merthyr Rising in May 1831 where coal and steel workers employed by the powerful Crawshay family took to the streets of Merthyr Tydfil, calling for reform, protesting against the lowering of their wages and general unemployment. Gradually the protest spread to nearby industrial towns and villages and by the end of May the whole area was in rebellion, and for the first time in the world the red flag of revolution was flown – which has since been adopted internationally by the trades union movement and socialist groups generally.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

 6f2ea1a2a8619dede777fe35f0c8806fd06f3baa.jpg This year is the 188th anniversary of when six Dorset farm labourers were sent to an Australian penal colony, but their ‘crimes’ helped change the face of employment rights for generations to come – and it all began in the small village of Tolpuddle.

Tolpuddle is a village near Dorchester in Dorset. During the years leading up to the arrest of the six offenders, a great wave of trade union activity took place and a lodge of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers was established. Entry into the union involved payment of a shilling (5p) and swearing before a picture of a skeleton never to tell anyone the union’s secrets. The average wage for a farm labourer at the time was 10 shillings per week, but the Tolpuddle men had seen their wages dropped to 7 shillings (with threats of future cuts). The fact that the men sword an oath made their actions illegal. Therefore, the men were arrested. Their employers feared possible unrest, for the British populations had not forgotten the French uprisings. 

 tolpud.gif On 24 February 1834, George Loveless and five fellow workers – his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and Thomas’s son John – were charged with having taken an illegal oath. But their real crime in the eyes of the establishment was to have formed a trade union to protest about their meagre pay. The jury was made up of 12 farmers, the exact same type of men the labourers had been accused of offending. 

2nd_V_Melbourne.jpg Lord Melbourne, the British Prime Minister at this time, openly opposed the Trade Union Movement, so when six English farm labourers were sentenced in March 1834 to 7 years transportation to a penal colony in Australia for trade union activities, Lord Melbourne did not dispute the sentence. The Whig government had become alarmed at the working class discontent in the country at this time. The government and the landowners, led by James Frampton, were determined to squash the union and to control increasing outbreaks of dissent.

According to the BBC Home, “They were tried before an all-male 12 jury. The jury men were farmers, and the employers of the labourers under trial. The farmers themselves rented their land from the gentry – but it was the gentry who had opposed the idea of the labourers uniting. The men on trial stuck to their view. Their leader was George Loveless, and in addressing the judge and jury, he wrote: ‘My lord, if we had violated any law it was not done intentionally. We were uniting together to save ourselves, our wives and families from starvation.’ Even so, after a two day trial, Judge Baron Williams found them guilty: ‘The safety of the country was at stake,’ he said. They were sentenced to seven years in a penal colony in Australia, where they would have been sold on as slaves. It was the maximum sentence they could have had. They had been made an example of.”

The offenders were to be transported to a penal colony in Australia. After the trial many public protest meetings were held and there was uproar throughout the country at this sentence, so the prisoners were hastily transported to Australia without delay. The working class rose up in response to this sentencing A massive demonstration of 30,000 marched down Whitehall through London in support of the labourers, and an 800,000-strong petition was delivered to Parliament protesting about their sentence.

After three years, during which the trade union movement sustained the Martyrs’ families by collecting voluntary donations, the government relented and the men returned home with free pardons and as heroes.

When finally home and free, some of the ‘martyrs’ settled on farms in England and four emigrated to Canada.

Unfortunately, for two years running, the annual festival commemorating this event has been online because of COVID restrictions, however, 2022 did see its return. 

Stephen McKay w:Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Museum. A museum commemorating the Tolpuddle martyrs is housed in this group of cottages at the west end of Tolpuddle village., Dorset, UK. ~ via Wikipedia


Meet the Martyrs 

The Story: Tolpuddle Martyrs

Tolpuddle Martyrs (The Dorset Page)

Tolpuddle Martyrs (Historic UK)

Tolpuddle Martyrs (Wikipedia)

Tolpuddle Martyrs, 1834 (History Home)

Sharing is Caring!
Follow by Email

6 Responses to Early Trade Unions in Britain and the The Tolpuddle Martyrs, Changing the Face of Employment Rights

  1. I am all for proper and appropriate payment for a day’s work. There is nothing wrong with employees wanting good wages and safe working conditions. However, there has been evil on both sides. Greed knows no boundaries nor recognizes class distinction. Unscrupulous and unethical employers can make life miserable for employees. [Back then] Starving a workforce is not conducive to a healthy working relationship between the master and his employees. [Today] However, I don’t think demanding more money when they already earn a good wage is fair either.

    I have worked on both sides of labor issues. I was part of a union and then worked as management support which was a non-union position. That, unfortunately, put me at odds with the union when there was a strike in another part of our state. It dragged on forever and management support people were sent in to relieve those who were still working the management positions. I have never experienced fear like I did when we had to cross the picket lines. It was a nasty strike and we were escorted everywhere. No one was allowed to drive in due to fear of reprisals and damage to vehicles. They flew us in and out of the area in private planes. It was certainly an eye-opening experience.

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for sharing.

    • I spent 40 years as a teacher in three different states. The first 12 was in a state which paid little beyond a pat on the back. As retirement is based on the three highest paying years, I am glad I left there because they still do not pay adequate wages. In the second, we had a union. It took a while to become accustomed to seeking their assistance when needed, but, I can honestly say, I certainly missed their protection the last eight years of my career. The second was in Ohio. The majority of my retirement comes from there. We were ordered out of an unsafe building by the union there, even though the administration threatened our jobs. It was a new building, but the ventilation system was not installed properly. A different union addressed those issues.

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.