Monday, 25 February 2013

A Staffordshire Tolpuddle- early trade unions



In late February 1834 there occurred two incidents, which involved early trade unionism in different parts of the country. One in Dorset received, in time, national and international prominence whilst the other, in the Staffordshire Moorlands, would be forgotten and reports of the incident overlooked.

The incident in Tolpuddle led to 5 men being tried and eventually transported for 7 years to Australia. The other 5 men in the Moorlands would again lead to imprisonment and a trial for the same offence although the outcome would be very different.

Both events took place in a rural England seething with anger and discontent in the early 19th century. It was a time of great change where the certainties and traditions of the countryside were being swept away. A policy of enclosing the land, undermining the age old rights of grazing livestock on common land, of gathering brushwood or turf for fuel and collecting gleanings from the community harvest to keep the family in bread during the winter months had been disastrous for the rural poor. Their position was further worsened by an economic depression. They had no redress and were powerless to influence a parliament that was controlled by the very landowners who were suppressing them. The people who worked on the land received no compensation whatsoever for the loss of their land and previously held centuries old rights. They were driven to desperation.

By the 1830s a vicious circle of low wages, lack of influence and growing poverty tightened, men were often placed in wretched situations forced to tramp for miles to obtain help from the parishes that administered the poor laws. As rural crime rates increased the response of the Government grew harsher as people did as young as 14 were hanged for stealing and others transported for petty theft.

Finally in the early 1830s the countryside erupted in rebellion and the so-called “Captain Swing” Riots broke out. Villagers around the country marched on the homes of the local squire or magistrate to demand a decent living wage and improved living conditions. To show their feelings hayricks were burnt and machinery wrecked, although there is no record of anyone being killed.

The reaction of the authorities was savage and around the country over 250 people were sentenced to, although only 9 were executed.

The background of these hard times forms an overture to the events both in Tolpuddle and in Flash as working people in both communities sought solutions to the basic problem of how to secure a livelihood.

The answer for both was to look to community action through joining a trade union. By 1834 Trade Unions were legal and had been so since 1824. In that year laws that had existed to make trade unions illegal had been repealed. The right for working men to come together and to bargain with their employers was established. Under the circumstances working men and women took advantage of the relaxed laws and membership of the early trade unions increased.

However one aspect of trade unionism at the time had been omitted from the appeal – the ritual of initiating the member into the union. It was the ritual that bought the wrath of the Government down on the heads of the people, both in Dorset and in North Staffordshire. The initiation ceremony dated back to the years when belonging to a trade union was breaking the law and early trade unionists needed to know that their business was secret and their plans concealed.

The Dorset men were convicted of administering an illegal oath using legislation that had originally been intended for use during a naval mutiny- the illegal oath legislation and it was the same legislation that was intended to be used against another group of workers a few hundred miles further north.

But what was the position in the Moorlands at this time? The township of Alstonefield had a population of 649 and with the population of other townships in the area such a Warslow and Quarnford the wider community added up to an area population of 4700. The Directory of 1834 mentions that an Act of Parliament had recently been laid down to enclose all the common land in the area which surely must have rankled who relied on the commons for additional food and fuel to eke out their meagre wages. Another source of irritation was that the value of the land would have been made over to a local Vicar to the value of £300 a year. It is worth noting that early trade unionism was very much involved Methodists and other dissenters who were often at odds with the established Church of England. I will conjecture that the 5 men on trial were Primitive Methodists, a sect founded in North Staffordshire. The dispute in the area centred on button making and there existed in the area called Oliver a maker of “Florentine buttons”.

Button making in the early 19th century was a cottage industry and increased use of machinery and adverse trade circumstances and wage reduction in the early 19th century caused many to look to forming a new trade union which caused them to be in conflict with the law.

The authority mindful of the increase in unrest in both town and country decided on a harsh course and a number of local men were arrested.


The 5 men in the dock at Stafford in August 1834 were named as William Ball, Thomas Malkin, Joseph Coates, Joseph Haywood and Henry Booth- were all from Leek. All these names occur as common surnames in the area which they still do today. They were indicted for administering an illegal oath to Elizabeth Bestwick at Alstonefield on the 27th February 1834. The evidence of Elizabeth Bestwick of Alstonefield is extremely interesting as it sheds light on how early trade unionist operated

In February 1834 Mr Brunt said to me that the best thing to do was to commence a union. On the 27th all the defendants came to the Travellers Rest and explained the advantages of joining a trade union and said that we would not have cause to repent it. We of our own free will not make buttons for under 6d and 10d. They were singing and praying, but they did not compel me to take the oath. We took it of our own free will. They sang and prayed and took the oath in the clubroom, our eyes were blindfolded. A woman did it , but I did not know whom. She led us in and we went to a large dining table. We all knelt down with our right hand on our left breast and our left hand on a Bible. We kissed the book and solemnly declared that we would not make buttons for 6d and 10d, but we would keep all the secrets of the lodge and never give the consent that the money should be divided or appropriated for any other than the union and if we did our souls would drop into a bottomless pit.

The first time they came to the Travellers Rest “ Now sister you are a member of our honourable society and may you all prove worthy of the honour conveyed upon you”.

Mr Haywood gave me my oath. Sarah Bestwick was sworn in at the same time. I took hold of her hand. We were to subscribe 2d a week at the quarter of the year. We were to turn out for higher wages. We would be allowed 6 shillings a week. All the prisoner’s were present.

Taylor, Johnson and Bowcock came to the Flash. Some time after this we were initiated and told us that the Dorchester men had been transported for taking the oath and bid us be initiated again. We readily consented to it. When I tool the oath my hands were readily bound, but the handkerchief hurt my eyes and I saw all the persons, the hatchet and the sword. They had on a kind of surplice. Two had light dresses on.

In August when the case came to trial it must have seemed a forgone conclusion. The 5 men pleaded guilty and their dread must have been reinforced when they realised that the judge at their trial was the same judge at the trial in Dorset and in that case Mr Justice Williams had been remorseless.

However the outcome was very different. Firstly unlike in the case of the Dorset men the local magistrate Greaves spoke up for the 5 men indicating that they were respectable and industrious men and what they had done the men had done in their ignorance. The men were contrite and leniency was asked for.

Secondly, public opinion had turned in favour of the Dorset men. Mass demonstrations and petitions had been organised in many places in the country including Stoke on Trent where a public meeting had been organised by the Potter’s Union in the Swan Inn in Hanley and a petitioner comprising of several thousand names had been collected. In London a demonstration of over 200,000 had taken place against the injustice suffered by the Dorset Labourers. The country was mobilised and the authorities did not want a repeat in North Staffordshire of the events in the south

Thirdly the unions had ceased to administer oaths so they were not likely to be caught again in this trap.

The men were realised and were sent on their way back to their Moorland homes and their families.

The Times delivered a homily to the wealthy during this poverty wracked period.

Let the rich be taught that Providence will not suffer them to oppress their fellow creatures with impunity. Here are thousands of Englishmen; industrious, kind hearted but broken hearted human being, exasperated into madness by insufficient food and clothing, by utter want of the necessaries for themselves and their unfortunate families”