IN EARLY May, a band of pilgrims set off from Bristol on their way to the recently renovated old Methodist chapel in Tolpuddle. On arrival, they sang a hymn before spending the night in this simple building, which has just opened as a Quiet Place.
Andrew McCarthy, who chairs the Tolpuddle Old Chapel Trust, and who has spent years (and not a few anxious nights) raising funds and seeking support to get the project finished, hopes that the chapel may become a regular destination for anyone seeking to explore the connection between faith and social justice, and/or to get close to a neglected and often misunderstood historical episode.
The current revival of interest in pilgrimages tends to focus on old routes linking sacred places, such as the Old Way, the recently re-established route from Southampton to St Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. Andrew’s hope is that the opening of the Tolpuddle Old Chapel will offer something unique.
Professor Philip Martin, writing on the website History Workshop (historyworkshop.org.uk), recently declared the chapel a radical historical object because of its connection with the lives of the labourers, some of whom built it with their own hands, using local chalk and timber: “Tolpuddle Old Chapel (1818) is the first significant material trace of four of the six men who were to become famous as the Tolpuddle Martyrs: George Loveless, James Loveless, John Standfield, and Thomas Standfield.”
One of the perils of acclaiming people as saints or heroes is that their actual character and experience can be obscured. When the story of these men is retold, the religious dimension is often hidden behind the political one — such as the detail that George Loveless and Thomas Standfield were both trustees of the original building, and that Loveless was a lay preacher in the Methodist Church; and, indeed, that the status and hostility of the village’s vicar had a part to play in what took place.
A COST-of-living crisis, a strategy to export troublesome people far overseas, fear of protests, and talk of conspiracies — such things were in the air in 1834. The differences, however, between our context and theirs are hard to exaggerate. Democracy was only in its infancy, and the Reform Act of 1832 had barely extended the franchise.
Britain was still recovering from a long Continental war, and the Industrial Revolution had hardly begun: far more people were still employed in agriculture and in service than in manufacturing. Central and local government had very little reach or power; the Metropolitan Police had been established for only five years. To describe the era as an age of anxiety would be fair.
In the early 1830s, the Swing Riots by farm labourers, provoked by the introduction of threshing machines, had occurred across the south of England, and the union movement, led by Robert Owen, was just getting established: both were viewed by men of wealth and property as potential sparks for a revolution. Winchester-educated James Frampton — who was deeply involved in the conspiracy against the labourers — had himself had to flee Paris when his Grand Tour was interrupted by the events in the capital.
GEORGE LOVELESS came to the attention of Frampton, the chief magistrate, when, in 1832, he appeared before him, petitioning him to uphold an agreement that he had made with local farmers, supported by other rural workers, and witnessed by the Vicar of Tolpuddle — the Revd Dr Thomas Warren — to restore agricultural labourers’ wages to ten shillings per week, after a recent reduction to eight shillings.
Frampton insisted that such an agreement had no validity, and that Loveless and his colleagues should accept whatever pay they were given. The Vicar denied that he had ever witnessed or supported the scheme, and the local farmers immediately cut wages to seven shillings.
Only after this did Loveless call a public meeting, to see what interest there was in forming a Friendly Society to pursue united action. This made it easier for Frampton, who had spies in the village, to take his next steps.
He had allies in Edward Portman, a fellow magistrate and an ex-Dorset MP, who immediately alerted the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, and the latter’s brother, the Rt Hon. William Ponsonby (who happened to be appointed foreman of the grand jury in the subsequent trial). Frampton added extra spice by telling the Home Secretary — falsely — that Loveless had been active in the riots of 1830.
In the mean time, Loveless, having given up on getting help from employers, magistrates, or the clergy, established a Friendly Society in the autumn of 1833. In December, Edward Legg joined; he would later be a key witness for the prosecution in the trial.
IN FEBRUARY of the following year, signs appeared in the area threatening anyone who joined a union with seven years’ transportation. As unions had been legal for the past ten years, this caused foreboding and confusion.
Three days later, the six leading members of the new association were arrested. They were charged under the 1827 Mutiny Act, on the grounds that they had sworn a secret oath — which indeed they had, as it was common practice among such societies of common endeavour — and, very quickly (within a month), they were tried and duly punished with the maximum sentence. Soon, they were manacled in prison hulks moored off the south coast, and shortly afterwards spirited off to Australia.
Protests were almost immediate, both inside Parliament, led by William Cobbett, and outside, and there was a wave of marches and mass petition-signing. It was obvious — as had been argued at their trial — that the law used against them was not applicable (Freemasons were particularly troubled by the precedent it set).
At first, all objections were resisted, especially by King William IV; but, in 1835, a pardon was finally given. It was years, though, before funds could be raised to bring them home. Only one of the six was able to resume life in Tolpuddle.
George Loveless spent a few years trying to establish a farm in Essex before — along with his family and three of his comrades — settling in Canada, where he died, aged 77. Before emigrating, he campaigned with the Chartists, and wrote about his experiences and beliefs in several popular pamphlets. Professor Martin has argued that he went out of genuine fear for his safety.
IN Church Shown Up, a letter to a Church of England minister who saw working-class people with ideas above their station, and all dissenters of any kind as threats to the natural order, Loveless wrote: “from the Bible may be extracted all those principles of morality and justice the practice of which would increase the happiness of mankind”, especially if “stripped of the appendages and mystifications of priestcraft”.
Given the way some of the clergy had behaved towards him, this rhetoric seems perfectly justified.
Tolpuddle itself has for a long time been a kind of secular pilgrimage site, thanks to the building of some memorial cottages in 1934, and the development on the same site of a museum to the “Martyrs”; and also because so many of the buildings and places involved in the saga are still extant.
Today, when the Churches are once again particularly concerned with matters of social justice and poverty, and the limits of protest and the use and abuse of history are matters of controversy, the renovation of the chapel and its opening to the public seem particularly timely.
The Revd Ian Tattum is Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Southfields, in the diocese of Southwark. He is co-chairing a Cost of Living Commission for Wandsworth Council.
The 2023 Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival runs from 14 to 16 July. For information, visit: tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/festival