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English laborers campaign against economic repression (The Tolpuddle Martyrs), 1833-36
Working conditions and wage levels in England in the early 19th century generally made laborers unable to support themselves and their families. According to the estimates of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, the average laborer needed about fourteen shillings a week in order to pay his rent and purchase enough food for his family. Wages of nine or ten shillings “reduced families to starvation levels” unless wives or children were able to work as well. In the 1830s, however, the rate of pay for laborers in Tolpuddle, in Dorset County, England, was seven shillings a week. This great disparity between wages and a viable income created a large amount of discontent among English laborers. In many areas, these discontents turned into the “Swing Riots”, in which unhappy laborers vandalized and destroyed the new threshing machines that threatened to make their jobs obsolete.
In other places, like Tolpuddle, unhappy laborers used different methods to attempt to secure wage increases and job security. In 1831, laborers in Tolpuddle met with their employers and, after a brief negotiation, agreed to a wage of ten shillings – well below a fair living wage, but certainly better than the seven that they had received previously, and comparable to the wages of other laborers in the region. The Tolpuddle laborers were successful in this initial negotiation in part because they displayed solidarity in going to meet as a large group with their employers, but also because the employers never intended to abide by their agreement.
Soon after, the employers in Tolpuddle reduced the labor wage to nine shillings, and then eight, and then all the way back down to seven, where the wage had been only months before. The employers then sought to lower the wage even further, to six shillings a week. Knowing that such a small wage was simply not survivable, laborers in Tolpuddle met in October 1833, and agreed to form a “friendly society”. Members were initiated with the recitation of an oath, while blindfolded. Most accounts say that the oath was simply one of secrecy, so that employers were never really sure who was a member of the society. This society’s goal was to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining – an action that had been legal since 1824, though laborers were not quite sure yet how to bargain effectively and with power. The society organized with the intention of carrying out a strike unless they were paid at least 10 shillings a week.
Within six months of the establishment of the friendly society, placards were posted around Tolpuddle, reminding residents of the Unlawful Oaths Act, an antiquated piece of legislation intended to prevent mutinies aboard ships. The postings threatened seven years’ transportation to the Australian penal colony for any and all members of the friendly society. Only days later, the six leaders and founders of the friendly society were arrested, and placed on trial for the violation of this act. All six were found guilty, and sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia.
The prevailing opinion in Tolpuddle sided strongly with the six convicted men. Stirred by the sight of the men being marched aboard ships, petitions were circulated among the citizens of Tolpuddle. A petition for the release of the men was presented in the House of Commons, with more than 1,500 signatures collected in less than 12 hours. Sympathetic members of Parliament argued that Freemasons and Druids took oaths that were technically unlawful, but were not harassed by the law. Many more petitions were circulated and presented from all across southern England – eventually more than one million unique signatures would be shown to the House of Commons in support of the Tolpuddle group.
On April 21, 1834, nearly 30,000 people gathered near King’s Cross station in London, and marched to the house of Lord Melbourne, the person in charge of justice in the kingdom. They carried with them the largest petition of the campaign, signed by 266,000 people. Three days later, Melbourne delivered the petition to King William IV, and more petitions continued to be presented to the House of Commons.
Initially, the government was unwilling to release the six prisoners. They dismissed the petitions because they had already been transported – it was a long journey, and it would be unfeasible for them to come right back. On June 25, 1835, a vote in the House of Commons confirmed the sentence, though it was clear that the vote was based primarily on the members’ individual beliefs about trade unions.
Within a year, as the petitions continued to flow into the offices of the members of the House of Commons, their opinions were forced to shift in favor of the Tolpuddle laborers. The six convicted leaders were granted a full pardon on March 14, 1836, and transported back to England. Though the laborers were not able to gain economic justice, and wage oppression would continue for at least 40 more years, the powerful defense of the laborers by the English public is striking, and demonstrates a commitment to real justice, not simple adherence to a law.
However, the campaign did fail to achieve broad support for the trade union movement, choosing instead to focus entirely on the goal of prisoner recovery. Though they were successful in achieving the release of the prisoners, the campaigners failed to further capitalize on the broad sympathy that the transportation order had roused in the British public.