Tolpuddle Martyrs

1818 chapel   Click to enlarge
The name was given to a group of six Dorset farm labourers who in 1834 formed a trade union in an attempt to prevent cuts to their wages at a time of great rural poverty. The leading figure was James Loveless and his companions were his older brother George Loveless, John and Thomas Standfield, James Brine and James Hammett. All but Brine and Hammett were Methodists, and the Loveless brothers were local preachers. Arrested on 24 February 1834, they were charged under an obsolete law with administering an illegal oath and were found guilty at the county court in Dorchester on 17 March. Sentenced to transportation, five of them arrived in Sydney in August. George Loveless had been taken ill and followed the others, arriving in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) in September. Sadly, there is no evidence that either they or their families received any support from the Wesleyan hierarchy. (This was in stark contrast to the maverick Dr. Arthur S. Wade, vicar of St. Nicholas, Warwick, who was at the forefront of the protests that led to their eventual return.)

They quickly became symbols of the infant trade union movement and the focal point of widespread protest, with the result that they received pardons; news of this reached Sydney in August 1836, but they reached home only after lengthy delays. Treated as returning heroes, they were set up on farms in Essex, but encountered much discrimination. In the 1840s all but Hammett emigrated to Canada, where they died. Hammett alone returned to Tolpuddle, where he died in 1891 and was buried in the churchyard. (The inscription on his gravestone is the work of Eric Gill.)

Click to enlarge
The episode became a landmark event in the history of Trade Unionism and is commemorated in several ways at Tolpuddle, including a row of memorial cottages for retired farm workers, built in 1934, and an annual rally in the village. The memorial chapel, opened in 1869, replaced a humble cob and thatched building, still standing almost opposite, a Grade II listed chapel built in 1818 and now in the care of the Tolpuddle Old Chapel Trust. Significant moves to renovate the earlier chapel in memory of the 'martyrs' who worshipped there were made in 2016., and the success of an application for a grant from the Lottery Fund in 2019 ensured that the building was renovated.

  • Owen Rattenbury, Flame of Freedom: the romantic story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (1931)
  • The Book of the Martyrs of Tolpuddle, 1834-1934 (1934)
  • M.M. Firth and A.W. Hopkinson, The Tolpuddle Martyrs (1934)
  • Joyce Marlow, The Tolpuddle Martyrs (1971)
  • Graham Padden (comp.), Tolpuddle: an historical account through the eyes of George Loveless (London, 1984)
  • Ralph Dickson, 'The Tolpuddle Martyrs: Guilty or Not Guilty?', in Journal of Legal History, 7, 1986, pp.178-87
  • A History of the Methodist Church in Britain and Ireland, vol.4, 'Documents and Source Material' (1988), pp.432-4
  • Lloyd Thomas, God is our Guide: the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their Methodist Roots (Dorchester, 2007)
  • Andrew Norman, The Story of George Loveless and the Tolpuddle Martyrs (Tiverton, 2008
  • John Gallop, Six for the Tolpuddle Martyrs (2017))
  • Roland E. Quinault, 'Who Martyred the Tolpuddle Labourers?' in History Today, vol.67 no.4, April 2017, pp.10-17
  • Oxford DNB


Entry written by: JAV
Category: Subject
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