March 18

This Day in History

General Interest

Mar 18, 1834:

Tolpuddle Martyrs banished to Australia

In England, six English agricultural laborers are sentenced to seven years of banishment to Australia's New South Wales penal colony for their trade union activities.

In 1833, after several years of reductions in their agricultural wages, a group of workers in Tolpuddle, a small village east of Dorchester, England, formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. Led by George Loveless, a farm laborer, the union rapidly grew in the area, and it was agreed that the men would not accept work for less than 10 shillings a week. With the urging of the British government, which feared a repetition of the rural unrest of 1830, local authorities arrested Loveless and five others on charges of taking an unlawful oath, citing an outdated law that had been passed in the late 18th century to deal with naval mutiny. In March 1834, these six men, including one who had never taken the oath, were sentenced to seven years imprisonment at an Australian penal colony.

Public reaction throughout the country made the six into popular heroes, and in 1836, after continual agitation, the sentence against the so-called "Tolpuddle Martyrs" was finally remitted. Only one of the six returned to Tolpuddle; the rest emigrated to Canada, where one Tolpuddle Martyr--John Standfield--became mayor of his district. The popular movement surrounding the Tolpuddle controversy is generally regarded as the beginning of trade unionism in Great Britain.

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