Today in London radical history, 1834: massive demonstration from Islington in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs

In 1834, 30,000 people rallied at Copenhagen Fields, Islington, to protest the sentences on the Tolpuddle Martyrs: six Dorset farm labourers sentenced to be transported to the penal colonies for seven years, after being arrested for meeting to organise a branch of an agricultural workers trade union.

On 24th February 1834, Dorset farm labourers George Loveless, his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and Thomas’s son John – were charged with having taken an illegal oath. But their real crime in the eyes of the establishment was to have formed a trade union to protest about their meagre pay of six shillings a week – the equivalent of 30p in today’s money – and the third wage cut in as many years.

Although the ban on forming and being a member of a trade union had been overturned in law nine years before, the ruling classes still had many weapons in their armoury to prevent working people from getting together to improve their lives; the six Tolpuddle men had been convicted of administering oaths to members of the union, illegal under the Mutiny Act. The arrests were undoubtedly influenced by the massive rural labourers’ revolt of 1830, the Captain Swing movement – any collective action by farmworkers following 1830 induced panic in the upper classes.

So when the local squire and landowner, James Frampton, caught wind of a group of his workers forming a union, he sought to stamp it out.

The Tolpuddle workers met either under the sycamore tree in the village or in the upper room of Thomas Standfield’s cottage. Members swore of an oath of secrecy – and it was this act that led to the men’s arrest and subsequent sentence of seven years’ transportation.

The men’s sentencing, on March 19th 1834, provoked a huge outcry from working class organisations in support of the Martyrs. A massive demonstration marched through London and an 800,000-strong petition was delivered to Parliament protesting about their sentence.

The convict ships taking them to Van Diemen’s Land were still in transit when the plan for a ‘national holiday’ (general strike) in support was broached; cautious voices in the union movement reduced this to a one-day demonstration.

The campaign climaxed in a huge demonstration from Islington’s Copenhagen Fields to Parliament.The march was organised by the London Metropolitan Trades, an alliance of trade unionists, many of them influenced by co-operative ideas (who had also been behind the founding of the National Union of the Working Classes).

Copenhagen Fields was chosen as the meeting point because it was private land, and could be booked; thus the authorities would be not be able to ban the rally. Earlier landlord Robert Orchard had been a radical; it is possible that the 1834 tenant also was sympathetic to the unionists’ cause; but the place also had radical resonances – the Times called it  ‘the old rendezvous of disturbance’, because it had a history of use as a radical meeting point, most notably for the monster rally by the London Corresponding Society in 1795.

Socialist Robert Owen booked the Fields; the police announced they would not block the march (though the government took the precaution of bringing in several battalions of troops just in case heads had to be cracked)…

The plan was to march to parliament and hand in the petition for the six men’s release to the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.

“At 7am, a light wagon festooned with blue and red calico was carried on to Copenhagen Fields by twelve bearers. On top of the wagon was an iron frame carrying the petition for remission of sentence. The petition itself was on a wooden roller, was two feet broad and three feet in length, and bore between two hundred and three hundred thousand signatures. By 8am, the approaches to the Fields were packed with members of the various lodges marching from their earlier assembly points. There were tailors, ‘distinguished by the jauntiness of their appearance’, smiths and metal-workers ‘a little dingy’, coalheavers ‘in their frocks and fantails’, and the silk weavers whose appearance ‘told a tale of squalid misery which every man must regret to know exists.’…”

Numbers attending were reckoned depending on which side you were on; from twenty  thousand, (according to its opponents’ calculations), to two hundred thousand (trumpeted by enthusiastic supporters). The Times claimed to have analysed the procession and came up with a figure of about thirty-five thousand. However even if this is accurate, there could have been more in the Fields who did not follow the march, and great numbers certainly watched but did not take part.

“According to The Times there were thirty-three banners, according to the True Sun [a radical paper] ‘nineteen facing London and twenty facing Hampstead.’… fluttering in the wind, shining in the sun – and it was fins spring day. By 9am the vast area of the Fields was filled with a mass of people thick and tight as grass on a well –maintained lawn. The Times sais the scene was most imposing..” … About 9.30am a rocket was fired as the signal for the procession to start. In the front were the horsemen… next came the Central Committee of the Metropolitan Trades Unions; then the twelve bearers carrying the festooned waggon with the monster petition, with the members of the delegation who were to present it…”

The march wended a long route, watched by thousands of spectators the whole way, through Kings Cross, Bloomsbury, Soho to Charing Cross and Whitehall; where Lord Melbourne decided he would not meet them to receive the petition.

However this march was just the beginning of the campaign: within two years the pressure had grown so great that the government was forced to backtrack and pardon the six men, and by 1839 all were free and back in England.

Read more on the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the campaign to bring them home

A mural in modern Copenhagen Street commemorates the demonstration

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