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Frampton – hero or villain?

James Frampton has lived in infamy for nearly two centuries as the ‘evil squire’ who was behind the prosecution of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. But does he deserve this reputation? Tony Burton-Page searches for the truth behind the legend.

Lt.-Col. James Frampton, Commandant of the Dorset Yeomanry, 1808-1845 (image: Dorset History Centre)

The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is so well known in England that it has almost achieved the status of myth. The six proto-trade unionists who were transported to Australia are held as heroes of the Labour Movement and a festival to commemorate them is held in the village in July every year. The outrage at the harsh treatment of the six men and the successful campaign for their subsequent pardon changed the face of workers’ rights in Britain.
But where there are heroes in mythology there must also be villains, and the character cast for that role in this saga is James Frampton of Moreton, the head of one of Dorset’s most long-established families, whose influence stretched back as far as the 14th century, to John de Frampton, MP for Dorset and Dorchester: there are still Framptons at the family home, Moreton House. But James Frampton has lived in infamy as a cartoon villain – even in Bill Douglas’s superbly restrained epic cinema version of the story, Comrades, that great actor Robert Stephens gives us only a caricature.
James Frampton was not a fiend in human form – of course. Like the Tolpuddle Six, he had no say in the circumstances of his birth. He was born into a wealthy landowning family and duly inherited the rank and responsibilities that it had borne for several centuries. The year was 1769, and little had changed in rural Dorset over those centuries. It was James Frampton’s luck to be the head of the family during a period of tumultuous change.

Moreton House, the Frampton family seat, as depicted in the 1774 edition of Hutchins’s History of Dorset (image: Dorset History Centre)

At that date, the Frampton family estate covered 9000 acres – an impressive enough amount, but there were a dozen landowners in Dorset with more land: the Pitt-Rivers family, for instance, owned almost three times as much. The Frampton seat was Moreton House, which had been re-built in 1580 and again in 1744, by James’s father. It was comparatively modest – Hutchins describes it as ‘not large’, although ‘elegant’ and ‘well contrived’. The house had a staff of eighteen servants at the time of James’s birth. His father, not an extravagant man, explained that this was because he had the two children of his wife’s previous marriage to look after; her husband had died at the age of only 31. James received a similar education to that of his half-brother, Charlton Wollaston – public school and university, starting as a boarder at Winchester at the alarmingly early age of eight. He stayed there until he was 17 and then followed in his father’s footsteps to St John’s College, Cambridge, graduating with a BA in 1791. But by this time his father had died: it was 1784, and James became head of the family at the tender age of fifteen. Guardians were appointed for James and his sister Mary, four years his junior; but since one of them, John Houlton, was a serving naval captain and the other, Henry Lyte, was treasurer to the Prince of Wales, these were hardly more than nominal roles.

The Frampton family crest: its motto means ‘by persevering’

James’s education continued with the Grand Tour, the traditional post-university trip around Europe for young men from privileged backgrounds. He went with his half-brother Charlton, leaving in early June 1791, by which time the French Revolution was in full swing. The Bastille had been stormed, the Assemblée Nationale had reformed itself into the Assemblée Nationale Constituante (ah! the linguistic niceties of revolutionaries) and Louis XVI and the rest of the royal family were about to attempt their disastrous flight out of Paris only to be caught at Varennes. The sight of a country in turmoil had a profound effect on young James Frampton. Even in Germany he was able to see the effects of the revolution: French people were fleeing there every day ‘in tribes’, he wrote to his sister. ‘I hope they will soon be able to do something against the uppermost party. For you must know that I am more of an aristocrate (sic) than ever.’
Frampton family tradition holds that James was responsible for saving a number of French aristocrats from the guillotine by spiriting them to England in the manner of the Scarlet Pimpernel. His letters to his sister do not mention these exploits, but this is hardly to be expected. Alas, the oral tradition is the only evidence. But there is no doubt that James’s pro-royalist feelings were reinforced by what he saw: one of Charlton’s letters home from Paris reports that ‘James is in love with the Queen, and vows he will go every day to see her pass to mass.’
Once home, James settled down to the life of being the village squire. One of his first duties was to fulfil the role of High Sheriff of Dorset. It may seem strange to us in the 21st century, but this was an unpopular position, as it entailed much responsibility for no financial reward – indeed, for some holders of the post it had proved ruinously expensive. It says much for the respect in which James was already held that he was invited to take on this role at such an early age – he was only 24. He must have been a success, because about a year later he was made a Justice of the Peace. He was a magistrate for the next sixty years, seeing it as a natural extension of his duties as squire.
It was 1794 when he began his activity as a magistrate, and by that time the blood-letting of the French Revolution had started in earnest. As Wordsworth (a contemporary of James’s at St John’s) put it in ‘The Prelude': ‘Head after head, and never heads enough For those that bade them fall.’ Frampton viewed the revolution’s descent into terror with the same horror that enlightened observers felt when Russia’s 1917 revolution inexorably led to Stalin’s own Reign of Terror, and it made him determined that nothing of the sort should ever happen in Britain. Like most of his contemporaries, he believed that the status quo was pre-ordained: the class structure as it stood was the product of divine will and was not to be interfered with.
It was an orthodox point of view for the time. Edmund Burke states it in his Reflections on the French Revolution. The second verse of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ in its original 1848 version is: ‘The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, He made them high or lowly, And ordered their estate.’ Only in the 20th century did the omission of this verse become standard practice.

There is no doubting the anguish expressed in the Martyrs' monument in Toldpuddle, but was Frampton himself so torn, or was he really the pantomime villain he is often portrayed as? (image: Ken Ayres)

So when in 1830 the ‘Captain Swing’ troubles began in Kent, spreading to other counties in the south, with their concomitant machine-breaking, rick-burning and rioting, Frampton and his fellow magistrates saw in them the makings of a revolution. Justice descended swiftly on the trouble-makers, but without Robespierrean zeal: in Dorset only a dozen men were transported to Australia and no one was executed, even though ‘demanding money with menaces’ was a capital crime. The threat of violence had been real enough for Moreton House to have been prepared for a siege, with all the lower windows and doors blocked up. In the event it was avoided, largely thanks to the intervention of a mounted patrol led by Frampton himself, who was a Colonel of the Dorset Yeomanry, having enlisted in it in 1794.
When Frampton heard about the six labourers of Tolpuddle who had formed a union to try and increase their wages, alarm bells rang in his head. He communicated his worries to Lord Digby, the Lord Lieutenant of Dorset. Digby had been in touch with Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary, ever since the Swing riots; Melbourne had an interest in Dorset, as William Ponsonby, the brother of his late wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, was MP for the county. Digby persuaded Frampton to write to Melbourne with his worries. Melbourne, who thought of trade unions as ‘inconsistent, impossible and contrary to the law of nature’, replied by suggesting that Frampton, as magistrate, should pursue the Tolpuddle Six with the 1797 Unlawful Oaths Act, which had been passed in the aftermath of the naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore to prevent secret political meetings. It is Frampton’s decision to take this advice which has led to his continued notoriety, even though he was not responsible for the charges brought against the six men or the harsh sentences they received.
There is no doubt that Frampton regarded his actions as his duty as a magistrate and a Colonel of the Yeomanry. It was this scrupulous devotion to duty as a landlord which led him in 1834 to provide a schoolroom for the village, then to have a well dug for it, and later to have a carpenter’s shop and cottage built. His estate diary often refers to cottages being repaired or re-built and by 1845 he provided slate roofs instead of the usual thatch. There was even a Frampton family charity to set up apprenticeships for Moreton children. Perhaps the ‘villain’ of this story is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

James Frampton in his later years (image: Dorset History Centre)

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