History Mesh

Tolpuddle Martyrs (1832)

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of 19th century English agricultural labourers who were arrested for, and convicted of, swearing a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers.

The rules of the society show it was clearly structured as a friendly society, and operated as a trade-specific benefit society; however, at the time, friendly societies had strong elements of what we now consider trade unionism. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were subsequently sentenced to transportation to Australia.

Relation to Textiles:

In many ways, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were one of the first trade unions; they were formed to protest against the reduction of wages, and while they were entirely non-violent, a local landowner wrote to the Prime Minister to complain about them and to invoke an obscure law that prohibited people from swearing oaths to each other.

Their protest reflected the situation at the time; large factories were encroaching on smaller industries and forcing lower wages, due to the unskilled nature of the work. The Martyrs themselves weren’t factory workers – they were agricultural labourers – but there was a general sense of discontent among the working class, as industrialisation and low wages started spreading from textiles into other industries.

Read more about Tolpuddle Martyrs on Wikipedia.