From Labourers to Martyrs: The Story of the Tolpuddle Men

05 July 2023

The year was 1833. Dorset has become increasingly impoverished and, a few years before in 1830, many labourers joined the Swing Riots and ended up in prison. In response to the deteriorating working conditions and wages, six Tolpuddle men founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers – four of them were Methodist, George Loveless, his brother James Loveless, Thomas Standfield and his son John Standfield – and refused to work for less than 10 shillings a week.

The men were deeply involved in the life of their village and in 1818 the Loveless and Standfield families had helped build a small Methodist Chapel. The chapel was constructed from cob, on a plinth built from brick and flint. The roof was half-hipped and thatched.

After an official complaint about the labourers’ Friendly Society, the founders were arrested on the grounds of swearing an illegal oath; tried, convicted and transported to Australia and Tasmania in 1834. The Tolpuddle affair caught the attention of unions and a mass procession of 35 unions marched to Whitehall to present a petition signed by 200,000 people to Lord Melbourne. He refused it but the affair was then debated in Parliament.

The men were considered heroes and their story spread like wildfire over England and soon around 800,000 people signed a petition for their release. Supported by Lord John Russel – who had become Home Secretary in April 1835 – the Tolpuddle Labourers were pardoned in March 1836, coming back to England between 1837 and 1838.

On their return to England, the Loveless and Standfield families relocated to Essex before emigrating to Canada in 1844 and 1846 where they remained for the rest of their lives, contributing to local politics and the local life of the Methodist Church. They never claimed to be martyrs and their friends and family knew very little of what happened to them in England and Australia.

Being the leaders of the congregation, the departure of the Loveless and Standfield families meant that the chapel ceased to be used by 1851. A new Methodist Chapel was built and opened in 1862 in Tolpuddle and the Old Chapel was converted to become a stable.

The Old Chapel was listed as Grade II* by English Heritage in 1989 but became increasingly derelict and was added to the ‘At Risk Register’ by Historic England in 2008. The Tolpuddle Old Chapel Trust (TOCT) purchased it in 2015 and started raising funds to renovate and extend the building. They received funding from national funds, local charities and individual donors.

The Tolpuddle Old Chapel is back to its former glory and opened to welcome visitors since May 2023 when it welcomed the Tolpuddle Pilgrims after their long walk.


Interested to know more, check out the Tolpuddle Festival, 14-16 July 2023 and the Tolpuddle Museum