Tolpuddle – a photographic essay
Ken Ayres points his camera at the village where six working men were ostensibly prosecuted for swearing a false oath, but actually persecuted for forming an association to fight wage cuts
Published in October ’11
Tolpuddle may be known the world over as the home of trade unionism, but it was not the birthplace of the union movement (membership of trades unions had in fact been made legal the year before the Tolpuddle Martyrs were prosecuted), so much as the place where such a travesty of justice occurred that roused the fury of hundreds of thousands across England.
It was here that a local squire, James Frampton, sought counsel from the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, on how he could quash an attempt on the part of some local agricultural labourers to fight wage cuts. Melbourne responded by suggesting he make use of the little-known 1797 Act Against Unlawful Oaths, which had been enacted following a naval mutiny at Spithead.
Frampton, along with eight other local magistrates, signed notices warning that anyone swearing an unlawful oath could be transported for seven years. Two days after the notices were posted, six men were arrested. In March 1834 the men were tried in Dorchester according to charges established by the grand jury (which included Frampton, two of his relatives, Melbourne’s brother-in-law and some of the magistrate co-signatories of the notices). The petty jury of twelve local farmers – who had no desire to pay increased wages – followed the direction from Judge John Williams that ‘If you do not find them guilty [of an offence he compared to sedition and treason] you will forfeit the goodwill and confidence of the Grand Jury.’ The six men were duly convicted and sentenced on 18 March 1834 for transportation to Australasia.
In April 1834, 800,000 people signed a petition calling for the men to be reprieved; over 100,000 marched from Copenhagen Fields in London to Westminster to demand their pardon. Two years later, after an election, a new Home Secretary twice initially offered a conditional pardon before offering an unconditional pardon. The men were allowed to return home, although only one, James Hammett, remained in Tolpuddle. The other five moved to Essex and then Canada.