DEPRIVED, dirty, but defiant, the Tolpuddle Martyrs faced the dock to hear their fate.
This month marks the 180th anniversary of the March Assizes in Dorchester, when Judge Baron Williams sentenced six Dorset farm labourers to seven years transportation.
The six were charged with and found guilty of administering an unlawful oath.
The harsh punishment sparked outrage across the country, eventually leading to a protest in London and a petition put before Parliament signed by 800,000 people.
It was as George Loveless was being led away from the dock that he thrust the words he had written in his jail cell into the crowd.
The declaration “We raise the watchword liberty. We will, we will, we will be free” was to inspire the trade union movement all over the world.
To mark the anniversary, Tim Lezard has been live tweeting events as if they were happening now.
Mr Lezard, who is the media officer for the South West branch of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), is using historical documents, including a transcript of the court proceedings at Shire Hall in 1834, to make the recounting as accurate as possible.
He said: “It’s interesting how much communication has changed. Back then it took weeks for news of the sentences to reach London, but now it’s instantaneous.”
The foreman of the Grand Jury at the trial was William Ponsonby MP, whose brother-in-law Lord Melbourne was the Home Secretary.
Other jury members included landowner James Frampton, his son Henry, his step-brother Charles Wollaston and several of the magistrates who had signed the arrest warrant.
Nigel Costley, South West TUC regional secretary, said: “The way the whole process of justice was done was pretty flawed.
“The whole building is designed to put you in your place, to terrify you.
“Hopefully with the renovation, people will be able to experience for themselves the awe and terror of going into the dock.”
Mr Costley added: “They were held in the courtroom cells for far longer than was normal, and George Loveless was taken ill, probably as a result of the conditions.
“They are tiny, dark, single person cells, and the jailors would put green wood on the fires to generate smoke to make the conditions even more uncomfortable.
“It was after days of this treatment that they were brought to the dock.” Despite this, the Martyrs were still able to stand defiantly as they heard the evidence against them, Mr Costley said.
“As far as they knew they had breached no laws and harmed no one.”
After the sentence was announced, the prisoners were marched back to the cells before being taken by stagecoach to be transported from Portsmouth.
It would be three years before they were to return to their homes.
Mr Costley said: “I think they remained quite proud throughout the court hearing.
“This is a story which is still very much relevant to today.
“Around the world, people are still being inspired by the Tolpuddle Martyrs to defend their right to attend organised meetings.”
Timeline of events
- October 1833: The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers is formed in Tolpuddle, with George Loveless as its leader.
- February 24, 1834: George Loveless and five others are arrested at their homes in Tolpuddle. They were charged with having participated in the administration of an illegal oath and marched to Dorchester.
- March 1: The six farmworkers are interviewed and committed for trial at the next assizes. George Loveless was later visited by a lawyer, Mr Young, who promised him freedom if he would betray his companions. He refused.
- March 4: Home Secretary Lord Melbourne said in a letter to landowner Squire Frampton that he did not want to ban unions as it would make martyrs of the Tolpuddle six.
- March 21 and 22: The trial takes place at Shire Hall, Dorchester.
- April 21: Up to 100,000 people attend a protest against the sentences at Copenhagen Fields in London
- May 17: George Loveless is taken in chains aboard the William Metcalfe sailing from Portsmouth and bound for Australia.
- June 1835: Lord John Russell, the new Home Secretary, grants conditional pardons for all six men. They refused this offer of compromise.
- March 14 1836: After more pressure, the Government grants full and free pardons for the farm workers.
- June 13, 1837: George Loveless returns home to Tolpuddle.
£1m works for Shire Hall
SHIRE Hall, the scene of the Tolpuddle Martyrs trial, is undergoing a million pound refurbishment to transform it into a heritage centre.
Heritage Lottery Funding (HLF) worth £69,000 has already been secured and a further bid is expected to be submitted in July or August.
The Grade 1 listed building includes the Old Crown Court and Cells and is also within the former offices of West Dorset District Council.
Project manager Martin Cooke said: “It is going really well and we are expecting to submit a planning application and listed building consent in the next month.
“Then in early 2015 we will be in a position to start the delivery stage, putting it out to tender and beginning the building work.”
The district council is match funding the HLF bids.
Mr Cooke added: “It is something that people are very interested in.
“The court is a place which affected the lives of countless people for 150 years.
“I have spoken to visitors from Australia who said if their great-great-grandfather had not stolen a loaf of bread they would have a different nationality now.”
Following on from a successful performance of We Will Be Free, a play telling the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs at the Corn Exchange earlier this month, a series of events including performances and talks is planned by project workers this summer.
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“What is the warrant for?” asked Loveless. “What have we done?” Constable Brine replied: “You’d best take it and read it for yourself.”
George Loveless later wrote: “I had never seen the inside of a jail before, but now I began to feel it – disagreeable company, ... close confinement and bad bread. This,” he wrote, “is our fare for striving to live honest.”
Frampton was a man of great wealth, the sole landowner in the neighbouring parish of Moreton. His mind was made up before he examined the #Tolpuddle Martyrs.
He had for weeks been urging the Home Secretary of the dangers of unions.
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