Mar 182018

On this date in 1834 the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of 19th-century Dorset agricultural laborers who were arrested for, and convicted of, swearing a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, were sentenced to penal transportation to Australia. Their friendly society operated as a trade-specific benefit society, so it is often considered to be a forerunner of trade unions.

Before 1824 the Combination Acts had outlawed “combining” or organising to gain better working conditions. In 1824/25 these acts were repealed, so trade unions were no longer illegal. In 1833, six men from Tolpuddle in Dorset founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to protest against the gradual lowering of agricultural wages. These Tolpuddle laborers refused to work for less than 10 shillings a week, although by this time wages had been reduced to 7 shillings and were due to be further reduced to 6. Typically, Dorset laborers ate bread and cheese for their main meals (perhaps with meat on Sundays), and a family would pay in the neighborhood of 5 shillings per week for bread alone (they did not conventionally bake at home). Farm workers got their housing free and were allowed to use land to grow vegetables. Even so, 6 shillings per week represents starvation wages for workers who were in the fields from sun up to sun down 6 days per week.

The Tolpuddle Friendly Society, led by George Loveless, a Methodist local preacher, met in the house of Thomas Standfield. Groups such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs would often use a skeleton painting as part of their initiation process. The newest member would be blindfolded and made to swear a secret oath of allegiance. The blindfold would then be removed and they would be presented with the skeleton painting. This was to warn them of their own mortality but also to remind them of what happens to those who break their promises. An example of this skeleton painting is on display at the People’s History Museum, Manchester.

In 1834, James Frampton, a local landowner and magistrate, wrote to Home Secretary Lord Melbourne to complain about the union. Melbourne recommended invoking the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797, an obscure law promulgated in response to the Spithead and Nore mutinies, which prohibited the swearing of secret oaths. James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, George’s brother James Loveless, George’s brother in-law Thomas Standfield, and Thomas’s son John Standfield were arrested and tried before Sir John Williams in R v Lovelass and Others. They were found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ penal transportation to Australia. At the time of sentencing, George Loveless wrote on a scrap of paper lines from the union hymn “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!

James Loveless, the two Standfields, Hammett and Brine sailed on the Surry to Sydney, where they arrived on 17th August 1834. George Loveless was delayed due to illness and left later on the William Metcalf to Van Diemen’s Land, reaching Hobart on 4th September. Of the five who landed in Sydney, Brine and the Standfields were assigned as farm laborers to free settlers in the Hunter Valley. Hammett was assigned to the Queanbeyan farm of Edward John Eyre, and James Loveless was assigned to a farm at Strathallan. In Hobart, George Loveless was assigned to the viceregal farm of Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur.

In England they became popular heroes and 800,000 signatures were collected for their release. Their supporters organized a political march, one of the first successful marches in the UK, and all were pardoned, on condition of good conduct, in March 1836, with the support of Lord John Russell, who had recently become home secretary. When the pardon reached George Loveless some delay was caused in his leaving due to no word from his wife as to whether she was to join him in Van Diemen’s Land. On 23rd December 1836, a letter was received to the effect that she was not coming and Loveless sailed from Van Diemen’s Land on 30 January 1837, arriving in England on 13th June 1837.

In New South Wales, there were delays in obtaining an early sailing due to tardiness in the authorities confirming good conduct with the convicts’ assignees and then getting them released from their assignments. James Loveless, Thomas and John Standfield, and James Brine departed Sydney on the John Barry on 11th September 1837, reaching Plymouth on 17th March 1838, one of the departure points for convict transport ships. A plaque next to the Mayflower Steps in Plymouth’s historical Barbican area commemorates the arrival. Although due to depart with the others, James Hammett was detained in Windsor, charged with an assault, while the others left the colony. It was not until March 1839 that he sailed, arriving in England in August 1839.

The Lovelesses, Standfields and Brine first settled on farms near Chipping Ongar, Essex, then moved to London, Ontario, Canada, where there is now a monument in their honor and an affordable housing co-op and trade union complex named after them. George Loveless is buried in Siloam Cemetery on Fanshawe Park Road East in London, Ontario. James Brine is buried in St. Marys Cemetery, St. Marys, Ontario. He died in 1902, having lived in nearby Blanshard Township since 1868. Hammett remained in Tolpuddle and died in the Dorchester workhouse in 1891.

A monument was erected in their honor in Tolpuddle in 1934, and a sculpture of the martyrs, made in 2001, stands in the village in front of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum.The Tolpuddle Martyrs festival is held annually in Tolpuddle, usually in the third week of July, organized by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) featuring a parade of banners from many trade unions, a memorial service, speeches and music. The courtroom where the martyrs were tried, which has been little altered in 200 years, in Dorchester’s Shire Hall, is being preserved as part of a heritage scheme.

The simplest way to celebrate the Tolpuddle Martyrs would be a ploughman’s lunch of bread and cheese, and I would have a classic Dorset cheese such as blue Vinny. But I have waxed lyrical enough in previous posts about a ploughman’s (search if you are interested). Instead I will give you Dorset jugged steak. In this context, “jugged” simply means casseroled slowly. The flavor combinations here are special, and the forcemeat balls add a little something to what might otherwise be no more than beef stew, (commoner in the 19th century than now).

Dorset Jugged Steak


800 gm stewing steak, cubed
30 g plain wholewheat flour
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
5 whole cloves
salt and pepper
200 ml port
400ml beef stock (approx.)
200 gm sausage meat
60 gm fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
20 ml redcurrant jelly


Preheat the oven to 325°F/170°C.

Place the meat cubes and flour in a heavy paper bag. Tightly close off the top and shake the bag vigorously to coat the meat. Put the meat in a casserole, leaving the excess flour in the bag. Add the cloves and onions, salt and pepper. Pour in the port and add enough stock to just cover the meat.

Cover the casserole and bake for 2 hours 15 minutes.

In a mixing bowl Place the breadcrumbs, parsley and sausage meat in a mixing bowl and thoroughly mix them together. Divide this mix into 8 pieces and roll them into balls.

Once the 2 hours 15 minutes is up remove from the oven add the redcurrant jelly stirring slowly and the forcemeat ball. Return to the oven for a further 45 minutes.

Serve with crusty bread, and a green salad or vegetable of your choice, such, as spinach, along with boiled new potatoes.