June 17 The Tolpuddle Martyrs
George Loveless, a ploughman, community leader and Methodist preacher returned from exile today in 1837, from what was then known as Van Deimens Land (Tasmania). Transportation to Australasia was brutal and about 162,000 convicts where transported from the UK between the 1780’s and the 1860’s. Few ever returned from such a sentence as the harsh voyage and rigours of slavery took their toll. Loveless had been arrested with five other farm labourers from Tolpuddle, as they were members of a 'friendly society' - a forerunner to a trade union. In a time of falling wages, they had sworn secret oaths to protect their income. Combining or organising to get better working conditions had been outlawed, although this had been adjusted to allow very restricted trade Union practice.
The county of Dorset, on the Southern English Coast, had a reputation for poorly paid agricultural labour. But conditions had deteriorated so badly that large numbers of labourers joined the Swing Riots in southern England. It had begun with the destruction of threshing machines as rich tenant farmers had been progressively lowering workers' wages while introducing agricultural machinery. However, the rioters were also angry at the tithe system, which required payments to support the established Anglican Church; and the Poor Law guardians, who were thought to abuse their power over the poor. Many transportations to Australasia were as a result of these riots. A few landowners temporarily increased wages as a concession, but law enforcement was also increased and many labourers were arrested and imprisoned, and soon the gains in wages were reversed.
In Dorset, Loveless, had started a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers and they had refused to work for less than 10 shillings a week, although by this time wages had already been reduced to seven shillings and were due to be further reduced to six. As part of their initiation process, they would use a skeleton painting, the new member, blindfolded and made to swear a secret oath of allegiance. The blindfold would then be removed and see the skeleton painting to warn them of their own mortality ( a memento mori) but also to remind them, coercively, of what happens to those who break their promises. So, although trade unionism was not illegal, Loveless had been found guilty of administering unlawful oaths and at the Dorchester Assizes he was sentenced to transportation for seven years to the Australian colonies.
When sentenced to seven years' penal transportation, George Loveless wrote on a scrap of paper lines from a hymn called "The Gathering of the Unions": God is our guide! from field, from wave, From plough, from anvil, and from loom; We come, our country's rights to save, And speak a tyrant faction's doom: We raise the watch-word liberty; We will, we will, we will be free! His case alongside five others, lead to 50,000 people marching in London to protest the treatment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, as they had become known. This was one of the first successful political marches in the United Kingdom and crucially it won the support of Lord John Russell, who had recently become Home Secretary. The British government would give a full pardon to all six of the Martyrs. On hearing the news, Loveless refused immediate free passage back to Britain as he had some months previously written to his wife requesting that she join him. Once he had confirmation that she was not travelling to him, he departed to arriving today back in Britain. He returned to find out he had become a popular heroes and 800,000 signatures were collected for their release.
He settled on a farm near Chipping Ongar in Essex and became an active Chartist and wrote The Victims of Whiggery, an account of his experiences. Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform in Britain that lasted for about 20 years.It took its name from the People's Charter of 1838 and called for reforms to make the political system more democratic including1) A vote for every man aged twenty-one years and above, 2) The secret ballot to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote 3 Payment of MP’s, enabling tradesmen, working men, or other persons of modest means to leave or interrupt their livelihood to attend to the interests of the nation. Other demands included regular elections and making it illegal to buy constituencies. Petitions signed by millions of working people were presented to the House of Commons. It was successful in political reform and apart from South Wales and Yorkshire remained non-violent.An annual Tolpuddle Martyrs festival is usually held in the third week of July, organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and featuring a parade of banners from many trade unions, a memorial service, speeches and music. Recent festivals have featured speakers such as Tony Benn (1925–2014), musicians such as Billy Bragg, folk singers from all around the world