Saturday, 24 October 2009

Tolpuddle in the archives

From LSHG Newsletter, Summer 2009

Research historians are forever arguing that it is best to return to original documents, which used to be found exclusively in dusty archives. These days some of these can be found online. There is plenty of scope for putting a lot more original material on-line about Tolpuddle. For example, why not the accounts and flyer of the London Central Dorchester Committee which are in the British Library?

But one fascinating document readily available to all is the Parliamentary debate on Tolpuddle that appears in
Hansard for June 9th 1835. A more interesting discussion of where the interests of the ruling class lay in respect of the rise of the early labour movement would be difficult to find. The debate was notable for contributions from two MPs: William Ponsonby, who had sat on the Jury that found the Martyrs guilty and Steward Wilde, who had overseen the trial for the State. There is no need to believe in conspiracy here.
Also illuminating is the repeated view of the Home Secretary Lord John Russell that of the six Martyrs the Lovelesses had been the ring leaders and ought to be singled out for special treatment. Russell, it should be
noted, was not a Tory but a leading Liberal politician.

The MP who spoke for the Martyrs was Thomas Wakley, a radical who is perhaps better known as the founder of the Lancet. His battles with the medical establishment had conditioned him to fight his causes
with great tenacity. He revealed that the Tolpuddle labourers, facing a reduction in wages, had communicated with activists in London as to what measures they might take to address this. The response had been that they should form a Union. Unions operated without legal challenge from the Government in London, no doubt because they were too large to do anything about. To address Russell’s point about the Lovelesses he pointed out that they were the best educated and most well read people in Tolpuddle. They were schooled of course not in Marxism - this being 1834 - but Methodism. Russell countered that it was their undoubted intelligence that made them more culpable.
They should have known better. It is an argument that the authorities deploy against radicals to this day. Wakley went on that over 800,000 people had signed petitions in support of the Martyrs. [The population at
this time was less than ten million.] His view was that the Martyrs, all of them, should have a total pardon
and be returned to England. Russell at this stage was not prepared to go that far. His view was that they had broken the law but could be pardoned since they had honourable motives. They would be free men in Van Diemen’s Land where their wives could join them.
Wakley’s call for a total pardon was lost in the Parliamentary vote in June 1835, but the debate had a
strong flavour of the ruling class trying to determine what course of action it should take. Ideally it would
like to suppress trade unions. But if the result would be labour unrest - and it clearly would - then maybe
concessions would be needed. The Parliamentary debate was the beginning of that process. The vote meant nothing against the continued power of the early labour movement. Before long all the Martyrs were pardoned and back in England. And that is where Chartism came in.
Keith Flett

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