The Conviction of the Martyrs

One of the most common questions asked by people enquiring about the Tolpuddle Martyrs concerns the legality (or otherwise) of their conviction, and what exactly they were convicted for. The most important factor here is that they were not convicted because they formed a union. Unions or ‘combinations of workmen’ as they were also called in the period were entirely legal in 1834, and had been so since 1824 and 1825 when two Acts were passed in parliament repealing the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, which had effectively forbidden unions. The Martyrs were convicted for swearing a secret oath as part of their union’s initiation ceremony, by way of invoking an Act passed in 1777 following the naval mutinies at Nore and Spithead (where the mutineers had combined by this method). This was highly contentious, as many societies at the time including Freemasons and the Orange Lodge, commonly swore such oaths and were never prosecuted for doing so. The national outcry which followed the Martyrs’ conviction was largely due to this perverse recourse to an arcane law which was – as many of the newspapers of the time reported – a pretext for victimisation.

PM. July 2024