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Page last updated at 08:49 GMT, Friday, 16 July 2010 09:49 UK
How the Tolpuddle Martyrs changed the world
A mock up of the farm labours in Dorchester's old court
The six men worked as farm labourers and money was tight

One hundred and seventy-six years ago, six Dorset farm labourers were sent to an Australian penal colony.

The farm labourers had formed a 'friendly society' - a forerunner to a trade union - and sworn an illegal oath to protect their falling wages.

But the outrage about their punishment helped change the face of employment rights - and it all began in the small village of Tolpuddle.

Every July their actions are remembered at a festival in the village.


Janet Pickering, who runs the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, believes everyone should remember what happened.

She said: "It's an important part of our social history and the festival and museum help to keep the memory of it alive."

The museum has around 40,000 visitors a year, but interest peaks in the summer months around the time of the festival.

"We get lots of historical groups, schools and colleges here, but the summer is the busiest period," she added.

Pay cuts

Tolpuddle Martyrs memorial in Dorchester
The six men were given a full pardon after four years in Australia

The men were put on trial at Dorchester crown court, one of the first courts to have a press gallery.

Because of this, news spread of their trial and national outrage grew.

Other members of friendly societies saw the events in Dorchester as a possible threat to their own groups.

An average wage for a farm labourer in 1834 was 10 shillings a week, but the Tolpuddle men had seen theirs drop as low as seven shillings a week, with the threat of more cuts.

Swearing an oath was illegal, so, acting on a tip-off from land owners worried about possible industrial unrest, they were arrested.

They were tried by a jury who were all farmers and the employers of the labourers under trial.

The farmers themselves rented their land from the gentry - and it was the gentry who had opposed the idea of the labourers uniting.

Found guilty

"My lord, if we had violated any law it was not done intentionally. We were uniting together to save ourselves, our wives and families from starvation."e
George Loveless
Tolpuddle farmer

Their leader was George Loveless, and in addressing the judge and jury, he wrote:

"My lord, if we had violated any law it was not done intentionally. We were uniting together to save ourselves, our wives and families from starvation."

After a two day trial, Judge Baron Williams found them guilty: "The safety of the country was at stake," he said.

Their punishment - six years in an Australian penal colony - was the maximum they could receive.

Four years after their conviction, after a change in Home Secretary and public pressure, the six men were given a complete pardon and they returned to England.

But it was the courageous actions of these men that helped pave the way, across the world, for the creation of trade unions, and the protection of employees' rights.

The 2010 festival is from 16 - 18 July



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