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19 March 2009

Tolpuddle Martyrs

God is our guide! from field, from wave, From plough, from anvil, and from loom; We come, our country's rights to save, And speak a tyrant faction's doom: We raise the watch-word liberty; We will, we will,we will be free!
After the amazing posts of the past few weeks--inspiration from movies, exotic family stories and the rest--I'm bringing us back down to earth with a solid thump.

Today's the anniversary of the day in 1834 when the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced to seven years transportation for daring to form a trade union. And, no, I didn't make that name up--it's a village in Dorset, about seven miles from Dorchester, which is justly proud of the Martyrs, whose sentencing, pardon and return (well, most of them returned) is considered the founding of the English trade union movement. There's a museum in the village dedicated to them and a yearly festival in their honor.

The irony of the Toldpuddle martyrs is that what they were doing--the formation of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers--wasn't even illegal at this date. The Combination Act had been repealed in 1825. And god knows they had a desperate need to protect themselves, bringing home a starvation wage of nine shillings a week in 1830, lowered over the next four years to seven shillings with a further reduction to six shillings in the future. The rapidly-growing organization stated they wanted ten shillings a week. Just to give you an idea of the extreme poverty of these laborers, it was estimated that the average rural household spent nine shillings a week on bread, the staple food of the working poor.

The nervous Whig gentry drew upon an obscure law of 1797 originally created to prevent mutiny in the navy, making the swearing of pledges of loyalty illegal, and the six men were brought to trial at the Dorchester Assizes. There they were sentenced to transportation, blatantly as an example to others, and became popular heroes.

In 1836, with the support of a new Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, and in response to public pressure, they were pardoned, and four of them returned to England. Only one of the six, James Hammett, went back to Tolpuddle, where he died in 1891. Three others emigrated to London, Ontario, where their descendants still live.

The tree pictured in the engraving above, and beneath which the first meeting of the Martyrs took place, still stands--according to a fascinating page of the National Trust site dedicated to historic trees, it's a sycamore that is over four hundred years old.

Extraordinarily, these men--or some of them--were literate. You can read their first hand accounts of their arrests, trial, and life in Australia at tolpuddlemartyrs.online-today.co.uk.

I find so much about the story heroic and touching, not the least of which is the power of words and language--the stanza at the beginning of the post was scribbled on a scrap of paper by George Loveless shortly after they were sentenced. I'm reminded of how much about Georgian-Regency England, beyond the glitter and fabulous clothes and elegance, was so heart-breaking and hard and pitiless.

I guess my rule when I'm writing is always to keep it in mind, if not on the actual page. How do you handle it? Does it worry you?

And I'm over at the Riskies today, or later today, talking about ... something possibly related to this. Or not.

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12 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Fascinating, Janet! Thank you for an earthy slice of history which I am willing to bet is scarcely known (if at all) on this side of the puddle.

I always bear in mind the darker elements of Georgian/Regency society when I write, and the conditions of the laborers particularly as compared to the comfort of those who deemed themselves their social betters. My novels, TOO GREAT A LADY (about the life of Emma Hamilton), ALL FOR LOVE (about the life of Mary Robinson), and even my time-travel novel BY A LADY, which is in many respects a lark, still bear in mind, and in some chapters harshly illuminate, those issues.

5:40 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

What a great bit of history, Janet. Thanks so much for posting it. I try to keep all of the more "real" aspects of life in England in mind when I write. Behind all the glitter and ball gowns and lovely carriages and four there were hundreds of people who lived lives of quiet desperation and more often lives of simply surviving.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks for writing about something I have never heard of before. My duke hero in my upcoming STRANGER'S KISS learns some hard lessons about how uninformed he is regarding the desperate need of so many in 1818. Before I wrote this book I had not payed much attention to the issue. But for me the period post 1815 is when economic change is racing towards them with all the growing pains it entails of which the Tolpuddle Martyrs are an example.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for this Janet. I just read about this briefly in Kate Williams new biography of Queen Victoria that I picked up while I was in London last week. I like knowing that dark side of history, although I do like lighter historical novels. Not everyone was aware in the 19th century of what was going on with the lower classes. Lord Melbourne was a classic example of an Upper Class Englishmen who just didn't want to know.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I focus on this stuff when the story calls for it, but otherwise I just shove it to the side.

The world hasn't changed one iota IMO. Modern Westerners don't want to know or think about the conditions under which their shoes and clothes and handbags and furniture and toys and rugs and so on are made. They don't think about the farm workers toiling in the hot Central Valley heat when they eat their strawberries. Most of them aren't even aware of the environmental issues they create when they toss an old TV in the trash or choose to eat meat meat meat.

The “haves” live in a bubble, always have, always will.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I never knew who the Tolpuddle martyrs were, though of course I knew the name (and enjoyed it, in a kind of there'll-always-be-an-England way).

It's hard to write about these things as a romance writer. History -- particularly industrial history -- has this way of creating as many problems as it solves, and it works according to its own schedule, which is by and large slower, more redundant and recalcitrant than the set of dance steps employed in a courtship narrative (which is hard enough to do right!)

War and revolution, I suspect, may be easier from the story-telling angle, than the slow work of large numbers of people adjusting to economic changes in their daily lives (not that I've ever done war or revolution -- and I certainly don't mean to imply it's easy easy). I once tried to write a book that culminated in the Peterloo Massacre -- where workers in Manchester were mowed down by the local yeoman cavalry, when they tried to assemble peacefully for...

...but that was my problem. In 1819, even in quickly-industrializing Manchester, the notion of forming a trade union wasn't yet widely shared or coherently discussed. The brave working men (and women! especially the women!) who met at St. Peters Fields, dressed in their Sunday best, with greenery in their hats, only knew that they were growing poorer, and that the people in power had to be told of it. But they weren't at all sure what course of action to take. Which, I suspect, is why the Tolpuddle martyrs are so important.

Thanks for this post, Janet.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a wonderful post, Janet! Every era has its dark side, but somehow with the Regency, I think perhaps because the surface glittery is so very brilliant and witty, the dark side seems a particular contrast, and perhaps isn't focused on as much literarily as the dark side of the Victorian era, which is well documented in novels going back to Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell and other novelists (not to mention Hardy, a bit later; I think "Jude the Obscure" may be one of the most harrowing depictions of sinking into poverty that I've ever read).

I've always been particularly intrigued by the contrast between the surface glamour of the Regency and the dark underside ("Cloaked in mystery, beckoning with promise, sweet at times but quickly cloying. And underneath, rotten to the core," as one of the characters thinks about 1817 London in the Prologue to "Beneath a Silent Moon"). I started out co-writing with my mom and even our earlier traditional Regencies had (rather gentle at first) glimpses of a darker side. As our books got darker, the amount of the dark side of society we showed increased. "Shadows of the Heart" ends with a labor riot in Lancaster (fictional, but inspired by real events). The suspense books I write now seem to particularly lend themselves to pulling the characters out of their jewel-box lives into the more tarnished layers of reality underneath.

I've used Lord John Russell, as a young, reform-minded politician, as a minor character. Interesting that he was part of pardoning the Tolpuddle martyrs.

Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post!

9:32 PM  
Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

As a lifelong union member from the US, I am always moved by stories about those who suffered to secure us a living wage. My current WIP is set in 1816 and I've worked into the plot the widespread unemployment and hunger following the war.

6:27 AM  
Blogger Eigon said...

I first found out about the Tolpuddle Martyrs by watching Blue Peter - they used to be brilliant at this sort of interesting yet educational storytelling (maybe they still are, but I haven't seen a programme for years - I'm from the John Noakes, Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves era).
For non-UK readers, Blue Peter is a twice weekly magazine programme for children that has been running since the early 1960s, making things involving sticky back plastic (with the catch phrase "Here's one I made earlier,") and usually making at least one of the presenters do really dangerous things.

12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am proud to have James Hammett one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in my family tree - he was first cousin to my 2xgrt grandfather also a James Hammett from Tolpuddle. I first learnt about the Tolpuddle Martyrs when I started tracing my roots some 12yrs ago, and go to the rally there each year meeting up with other Tolpuddle Hammett relatives. Next month is the 175th anniversary of the great demonstration for the return and release of the 6, which started in Copenhagen Fields (Islington). We are all proudly meeting up for this event and christening the family marching banner we have made up in memory of our relatives (some Hammetts are also related to the other 5 men).

6:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am researching my family tree and have found that frederick john trim who was born in tolpuddle about 1860 was my great grandfather but cant find his parents and was hoping that someone knows if his parents were anything to do with the protests.also he was married to lousia trim had 4 children sarah (my gran)dob 1889/annie dob 1899/henry not sure of dob but died 1947 /robert dod 1920 1stww if anyone knows anything would be very greatful you can contact me via e-mail..freegangirl75@yahoo.co.uk many many thanks to all for reading this

7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i recently went to tolpuddle to look in the graveyards and museum v.intresting but found no trims in the graveyards

8:36 AM  

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