When the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried in 1834 – under the tenuous 1797 Mutiny Act, a Naval law of all things – they were found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation to the Antipodean prison colonies. It was the harshest of punishments, exacerbated by a sham trial, with the man who raised the charges against them, James Frampton, sitting on the grand jury. Trade Union laws had been repealed a decade earlier, much to the displeasure of Frampton, a local landowner and man of influence, one who did not see his interests best served by the collusion of the working classes. Frampton wanted to make an example of the Martyrs. He wanted rid of them.
John and Thomas Standfield; James Brine; James Hammett; James Loveless and their leader George Loveless, formed The Friendly Society Of Agricultural Labourers to help defend rural workers’ rights. The organisation’s potential endangered the status quo, and was erroneously considered to be an extension of the radicalism that had brought chaos to rural England. Their story was played out against a context of a changing society, of rural violence and entrenched poverty.
The agricultural revolution did much to rationalise the yield from the land, kicking on from Jethro Tull ’s seed drill and the subsequent invention of the horse-drawn threshing machine. Britain was entering a new era of production, be it from field or factory.
For the unskilled labourer, for the peasantry; life was becoming ever more arduous. The relationship between landowner and peasant farmer was changing; tenant farmers, witnessing the loss of common ground where they could graze their livestock and grow crops, were now living as serfs. The new enclosure system of farming, private fields bordered by a patchwork of hedges, forced peasants off the land. England became a country with no landholding peasants, and this economic subjugation of the rural lower classes left a huge swathe of the country’s population without status, and no political voice. This was a tale shared by those in both rural and urban Britain. A class gap was widening, and with disadvantage came an undercurrent of dissent.
The summer of 1830 was witness to peasant uprisings that started in England’s south and spread north. In 1829 and 1830, successive bad harvests meant that the poor went hungry. Yet Tithe payments to the church still had to be made, squeezing family’s budgets ever tighter. In what became known as the Swing Riots – taking their name from the fictitious Captain Swing, whose name would be signed on anonymous letters to parsons, landowners and magistrates, warning of civil unrest – the British countryside was witnessing the most widespread peasant revolt since the Middle Ages.
After public outcry, the Tolpuddle Martyrs received a pardon in March 1836. Their return to British shores was greeted with much fanfare, their legacy almost immediate, as the Chartist Movement under Feargus O’Conner and the more measured William Lovett sounded a hitherto unspoken voice championing the worker, striking out for social justice.
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