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Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum
Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, Dorset
Statue of George Loveless outside the Tolpuddle Museum
In nineteenth century England, conditions for agricultural workers were very difficult. The nineteenth century Industrial Revolution is sometimes presented as a time when the good life in the countryside was left behind, replaced by a new and darker existence in industrial towns and cities. In fact rural labourers were generally having a tougher time than people in industrial towns. The old strip field system had gone. A labourer had once owned a portion of his land or output. Now fields had been enclosed into farms, with labourers as employees. Prices outstripped pay, and serious poverty resulted. Harsh winters and poor harvests in 1829 and 1830 made conditions even more difficult, and led to riots in November 1830. These riots were supposedly led by a mythical figure known as "Captain Swing". In all probability there was no specific Captain Swing. Conditions reached a point where many people in different areas all came to a similar conclusion, giving an impression of some kind of organisation, which didn't really exist. The chaos of a difficult life produced its own sense of direction, and people called this Captain Swing. To the conservative forces of England Captain Swing was like Professor Moriarity in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, a shadowy figure who seemed to lie behind every problem, amplified in fearful imaginings, bringing dark order out of threatened chaos. Riots were met with an aggressive response from government. Six hundred people were imprisoned, five hundred were deported, and nineteen were executed.
In the Dorset village of Tolpuddle a group of six farmers led by George Loveless decided to set up a union to improve their bargaining position with landowners. The society grew, and in the spring of 1834 it was agreed that union members would insist on a minimum wage of ten shillings a week for any work they might do. Immediately local landowners began to fear a repeat of the Swing Riots. James Frampton, the landowners' most influential figure, was determined to suppress dissent. Frampton had witnessed the French Revolution and did not want to see a similar convulsion in Britain. He managed to have the Martyrs convicted on trumped up charges of taking an unlawful oath. This was a piece of legal trickery, using a law applicable to the Royal Navy, not to civilian agricultural workers. The law was heavily weighted against the Martyrs. Back in 1776 Adam Smith had written in The Wealth of Nations of the vulnerability of workers standing against their masters: "The masters, being fewer in number, can combine more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work, but many against combining to raise it" (1. 8. 169). Home secretary Lord Melbourne backed the landowners, and the judge felt compelled to punish George Loveless and his companions as an example to others. The group was sentenced to transportation to Australia. The injustice of this decision helped turn the group, now known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, into popular heroes. Some MPs began to support their cause. Lord John Russell pointed out that the Martyrs weren't the only people to take secret oaths: the Duke of Cumberland would take a secret oath as head of the Orange Lodges of Freemasons, but that did not condemn him to transportation to a penal colony. By March 1836 public pressure had reached a point where the government felt compelled to reverse the sentences. Most of the martyrs made new lives abroad. Only John Hammet returned to Tolpuddle, where he died in 1891 and is buried in the churchyard.
Thomas Standfield's Cottage
In Tolpuddle today you will find six cottages built by the TUC which house the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum. Thomas Standfield's cottage where the group met still survives. A commemorative shelter and seat marks the former location of a sycamore tree on the green under which meetings were also held. Every July trade union organisations meet to parade past the green.
The museum has a variety of exhibits and interactive displays related to the Martyrs.
Address: Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, Tolpuddle, Dorchester, Dorset DT2 7EH.
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Admission is free.
There is a shop and limited refreshment facilities.
Directions: Tolpuddle is just off the A35 in Dorset, roughly half way between Poole and Dorchester. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on Tolpuddle.
Access: Wheelchair access is good.
telephone: 01305 848 237
web site: www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk