In chainsAs the sun rose on 24th February 1834, Dorset farm labourer George Loveless set off to work, saying goodbye to his wife Betsy and their three children. They were not to meet alone again for three years, for as he left his cottage in the rural village of Tolpuddle, the 37-year-old was served with a warrant for his arrest.

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 of six shillings a week – the equivalent of 30p in today's money and the third wage cut in as many years.

Sycamore treeWith the bloody French Revolution and the wrecking of the Swing Rebellion fresh in the minds of the British establishment, landowners were determined to stamp out any form of organised protests. So when the local squire and landowner, James Frampton, caught wind of a group of his workers forming a union, he sought to stamp it out.

Workers met either under the sycamore tree in the village or in the upper room of Thomas Standfield's cottage. Members swore of an oath of secrecy – and it was this act that led to the men's arrest and subsequent sentence of seven years' transportation.

In prison, George Loveless scribbled some words: “We raise the watchword, liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!" This rallying call underlined the Martyrs’ determination and has since served to inspire generations of people to fight against injustice and oppression.

Transportation to AustraliaTransportation to Australia was brutal. Few ever returned from such a sentence as the harsh voyage and rigours of slavery took their toll.

After the sentence was pronounced, the working class rose up in support of the Martyrs. A massive demonstration marched through London 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.

The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the campaign that freed them inspires us to fight on. The annual festival reflects the spirit of those prepared to stand up and be counted and for those just learning about the history it is a joyful celebration of our solidarity.

See Pathe News version of the story from 1934 here

See Communist publication on the story here

  • Before the Arrest

    Enclosed in Poverty Between 1770 and 1830, enclosures changed the English rural landscape forever. Landowners annexed vast acreages, producing...

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  • Swing Rebellion

    West Country agricultural life had been hard but stable for generations. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, new methods and machines...

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  • The Oath and Betrayal

    The Oath George Loveless and the union leaders needed to gather support from farm workers before they could confront the employers. To build the...

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  • Transportation

    Transportation was a brutal punishment. Few sent to the penal colonies ever returned either because they did not survive the ordeal or because...

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  • The Mounting Protest

    Unions organise to free the Tolpuddle Martyrs As news of the sentence spread, the fledgling trade union movement began to organise a campaign for...

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  • Homecoming

    Return to Britain George Loveless was the first to arrive home, on June 13, 1837. He was greeted by members of the London Dorchester Committee....

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  • Meet the Martyrs

    George Loveless Self-educated and self-reliant, George Loveless was 37 when arrested. He married Elizabeth (Betsy) and by 1834 they had three...

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  • Unions Today

    The campaign to win free pardons and safe passage home for the Tolpuddle Martyrs was successful. The victory confirmed the right of working...

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