Tolpuddle Martyrs: Banished to the penal colony of NSW for starting a union
Image credit: www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of English labourers who started one of the first unions in the 1830s.
Living and working in the small town of Tolpuddle in Southern England, this handful of farm workers decided to join together in a union to call for better wages.
In 1830 the wages of agricultural labourers were barely enough to live on and they were going to get lower. During the Industrial Revolution lots of machines were invented which could quickly do the work of many men. This put a lot of men out of a job, and meant that there were more workers than jobs. This meant employers could set very low wages because workers had to take any job they could get. In the following years their wage was reduced to eight shillings, and then to seven and in 1834 it went down to a mere six shillings.
Sometime between 1831 and 1833, the men of Tolpuddle decided to stand up for their rights and formed a union. They called it the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers (FSAL).
After their friendly society began to grow, they decided they were powerful enough to stop work, demanding that they be paid 10 shillings a week before they would return.
Their strike created a lot of interest throughout rural southern England.
In March 1834, the Government arrested six of the FSAL members – James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, James Loveless (George’s brother), George’s brother in-law, Thomas Standfield and his son, John Standfield.
The six were arrested for unlawful assembly and charged with ‘administering unlawful oaths’.
The jury found them all guilty as charged. The judge sentenced the six men to seven years transportation to the penal colony in New South Wales.
After the sentence was pronounced, 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
Their actions helped pave the way, across the world, for the creation of trade unions and the protection of employees’ rights.
Today the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum pays tribute to the martyrs and their ongoing legacy.
“My lord, if we had violated any law it was not done intentionally. We were uniting together to save ourselves, our wives and families from starvation.”
Tolpuddle Martyrs Worksheet
Check you knowledge, download the Tolpuddle Martyrs worksheet here.
Australian Curriculum Links:
History/Year 9/Historical Knowledge and Understanding/Making a Better World?: The Industrial Revolution
The experiences of men, women and children during the Industrial Revolution, and their changing way of life
The short and long-term impacts of the Industrial Revolution, including global changes in landscapes, transport and communication