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The Trades Union movement has its famous martyrs

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Industry, Institutions, Labour Party, Law, Politics, Trade on Friday, 17 January 2014

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This edited article about Trades Unions first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 517 published on 11 December 1971.

Tolpuddle martyrs, picture, image, illustration

Even when they were pardoned, their neighbours regarded the Tolpuddle Martyrs as convicts and avoided them by Ken Petts

Ten million working men and women in Britain today possess small cards which show that they are members of a trade union. They come from all walks of life; they include artists, actors, professional men, engineers, builders, shop workers, bus drivers and managers.

What in fact is a trade union?

It is simply an organization designed to protect the interests of all the people in the country who are employed on any one job. For instance, railwaymen, many of whom belong to the National Union of Railwaymen, or town hall workers, who belong to a union called the National and Local Government Officers Association.

In Britain today there are about 650 unions – some quite small, others with scores of thousands of members.

The unions generally have an important job to do for their members. They bargain with the employers for good wages, hours and conditions of work.

To do their job the unions must, of course, be organized and have officers and funds. Their money is contributed by their members, who each week pay a small sum from their wages to their union to support it.

Just as all men doing a certain job combine to form one union, so many of the unions, in turn, associate to form a national policy for all the unions.

This association meets once a year and is called the Trades Union Congress. It is a kind of voice of the working people, and it is now such an important body that the Government takes careful note of its views.

Many times during the eighteenth century workers in Britain tried to form trade unions, but Parliament always forbade them.

At last in the year 1824, Parliament agreed to recognize unions. A man named Francis Place had led the opposition to what were called “combination laws,” that is, laws directed against workpeople forming societies, or “combinations.” Now the trades unions grew rapidly.

England in those years was in the first iron grip of the Industrial Revolution. People were swarming to the north of England to work in new factories. But there were changes, too, in the rural south.

Men who all their lives had fed their families on the produce of their own bit of ground found themselves taken over by the big landowners, who could afford the new machines that did the work in half the time.

So the men who had lost their land went to work for the big landowners.

Many of them were terribly badly paid. Their homes were hovels, their family’s food was often just a loaf of bread.

There was great discontent. One place where men were discontented was in the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset. The weekly wage for farm labourers there was eight shillings a week, but in some of the surrounding villages the wage was ten shillings.

So, led by a labourer named George Loveless, the Tolpuddle workers asked the farmers to raise their wage to ten shillings. At first the farmers refused – but eventually they agreed to pay ten shillings.

But when two years had gone by and nothing had happened, the labourers pleaded their case before the local magistrates’ court. The magistrate, Squire James Frampton, quickly made his view clear. “This court has no power to fix your wages,” he told them. “So far as we are concerned the farmers can pay you what they like.”

And the labourers’ wages were promptly reduced to seven shillings!

George Loveless and his friends had heard stories about the new trades unions, so he wrote a letter to a union headquarters in London. The result was that in October, 1833, the labourers’ union, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, was opened.

When the Dorset farmers heard about the union they were furious. Squire Frampton was determined to crush it.

First, though, he had to find out something about it. So he got one of his employees, Edward Legg, to enrol at one of the union’s weekly meetings.

With Legg’s report of the union meeting in his hand, Squire Frampton wrote to the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne.

Lord Melbourne was a man of the same stamp as Frampton. The idea of a strong society of labourers terrified him. He not only promised support for the Squire, but suggested an ancient law under which the labourers could be brought to trial.

This law had been forgotten years before and Melbourne knew that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the trades unions.

He was aware, too, that the government had legalized trades unions, and that the Tolpuddle men were well within their rights.

The way in which the law was twisted to crush the Tolpuddle men is today recognized as one of the worst injustices ever perpetrated by Englishmen against Englishmen.

Early one February day in 1834, George Loveless, his brother James and four other members of the union were arrested.

A new judge named Baron Williams who was a friend of Melbourne’s was sent to conduct their trial, and his orders were to stampede the jury to a verdict of guilty.

Baron Williams did just that. The trial was a complete farce. Counsel, jury and prisoners were left bewildered by the judge, and when the jury at last returned the verdict the judge had ordered, Baron Williams passed the maximum sentence – seven years’ transportation to a convict gang in Australia.

The complete injustice of the trial and the callous way in which the sentence was carried out shocked the people of Britain. Only the prompt action of trades unionists all over the country prevented the families starving. Their members willingly contributed to a fund to provide food for the innocent wives and children.

Their help did not end at that. A tremendous outcry against the savagery of Melbourne’s and Frampton’s plot began. A huge procession marched protesting into Whitehall; everywhere on everyone’s lips was the name of the village of Tolpuddle.

At length the union men’s pressure overwhelmed the plotters. Two years after the Tolpuddle men were shipped away they were pardoned and brought home.

In England again they received a heroes’ welcome. A farm in Essex, bought by sympathizers, was given to them.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs had not suffered in vain.

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