Judicial martyrdom

In 1834, six labourers from Tolpuddle were tried for their trade unionism. In this essay, written on

It is fitting that the British trade union movement should commemorate the judicial martyrdom of the Dorchester labourers a hundred years ago. Many other trade unionists have suffered, both before and after 1834, at the hands of police and magistrates, juries and judges. There are many other incidents in trade union history in which the notorious ambiguities of the England and Scottish law have been used by the government of the day as the instruments of a policy of repression and deterrence. But the case of the Dorsetshire labourers stands out in the record, alike in the gentle innocence of the victims, and in the ruthlessness of the determination of the governing class to strike down an organisation which threatened to encroach upon the profits of capitalist industry.

It is worth considering at what period and in what political circumstances this strange miscarriage of justice occurred. It was not a time of political reaction. On the contrary, it was the hour of triumph of the Whig Party – of the spirit of what is now Liberalism. The Tories had just been overwhelmingly defeated in the two successive tumultuous elections of 1831 and 1832. The House of Commons of the moment had recently been elected upon the enlarged franchise and redistributed constituencies of the “Great Reform Bill” of 1832. The Tory candidates had gone down like ninepins before the enlightened Unitarian, Quaker and Wesleyan millowners, mineowners, bankers and manufacturers of the North and Midlands of England, and the new London Parliamentary Boroughs, reinforced by all that was influential in “Political Economy” and Utilitarianism. “Bill Cobbett” had even been elected for Oldham. The Whig government enjoying the support of a very large majority in the House of Commons and even holding its own in the House of Lords, was passing one “enlightened” measure after another. The game laws were being reformed – characteristically enough only to the extent of replacing the aristocratic monopoly of shooting hares and pheasants by the capitalist monopoly involved in getting the leave of the landowner and paying substantial annual fees for gun and game licences.

The Old Poor Law administered by the Overseers was just being superseded by the New Poor Law, administered by the Boards of Guardians elected by the ratepayers, hardly any of them wage-earners, and with plural votes for the property owners. The new boards were forbidden to continue Outdoor Relief to the able-bodied and their families. The negro slaves in the West Indies and at the Cape of Good Hope were “emancipated”, which meant their promotion to being the legally indentured labourers of their former owners. A beginning was even made in the protection from overwork of the little children in the textile factories. The Lord Chancellor, who was keenly interested in all these reforms, was the liberty-loving Lord Brougham. But the essentially Liberal House of Commons, maintaining in office the most “enlightened” Whig Ministry, was not going to allow the labourers in the rural districts of Southern England (where the combination in every village of squire, ­parson and farmers amounted to an ­“irresistible” dictatorship of the capitalist) even to combine to defend themselves against a ­progressive reduction of their scanty wages.

Why were the Whig Ministry, the liberty-loving Lord Chancellor and the essentially Liberal House of Commons so prejudiced against trade unionism in the rural districts of South England? Why did they remain unconcerned at so atrocious a sentence as transportation for an offence – the administering of an oath – which would have been ignored if it had been committed by an Orange Lodge or a combination of English farmers at a market dinner? Incredible as it may seem today, the governing classes in 1834 were genuinely afraid of a rural insurrection.

Only four years earlier, there had been a wild outburst of rebellion among the labourers of South-East England, well-described in The Village Labourer by Mr and Mrs Hammond, when the hated poorhouses had been assailed and a few people seriously assaulted. This was easily suppressed by the troops of cavalry which quickly restored order, and by a special commission of judges who travelled from town to town imposing savage sentences on the rioters. But the outgoing Tory Home Secretary, on handing over office to the incoming Whig Home Secretary, warned him that the growth of trade unionism was the most alarming menace with which his government would have to deal. George Loveless and his fellows were the victims of this absurd panic among the propertied classes.

This has a significance for the trade unionists and for all the wage-earners of today. As yet, the propertied classes are not alarmed at the spread of socialist opinions in Britain. But as trade revives and trade unionism increases its membership, and as the Labour Party recovers from the felon stroke dealt to it at the general election of 1931, the fears of the propertied classes will also be aroused. What will be the blow that they will strike at the growing power of the common people? The law is still an armoury of weapons to which they may have recourse, just as unscrupulously and as ruthlessly as their ancestors did in 1834. What is called criminal conspiracy is still an offence, punishable at the discretion of the judge, by sentences as atrocious as those imposed on the Dorsetshire Labourers. And criminal conspiracy may easily be held to include an agreement of two or more people, even their common membership of an association for such purpose, to do anything that the judges – not the juries – may hold to be unlawful; and even to do any quite lawful thing by means, or with ­intentions, which the judges – not the juries – might hold to be unlawful. Nothing but a strong party in the House of Commons, specifically charged with the defence of the wage-earners, will then save them from a repetition of the ­repression of 1834.

“The Book of the Martyrs of Tolpuddle 1834-1934”, in which this essay first appeared, has been reprinted by the TUC (£33.50). To order a copy, visit www.tuc.org.uk/publications

The Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, commemorating the 175th anniversary, takes place in Tolpuddle, Dorset, from 17 to 19 July.

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