Media bias has a long history
Tuesday 15th August 2017
A new exhibition by Marx Memorial Library gives a fascinating insight into the newspaper campaign against the Tolpuddle Martyrs in the 1830s, says MIKE PENETELOW
THE BIAS of the employer-owned press against trade unionists is often taken for granted by socialists but objective proof of it is needed to persuade others.
It is graphically provided in the current exhibition The Tolpuddle Martyrs: Their Story in Print, currently running at the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Museum in Dorset.
That story is of six agricultural workers transported for seven years to Australia in 1834 for forming a union to resist wage cuts that took them below subsistence level, then under 10 shillings (50p) a week.
In fact, trade unions had been made legal 10 years earlier by the repeal of the Combination Acts. But this would have been lost on readers of the press, including the Dorsetshire County Chronicle and Somersetshire Gazette, the bound volumes of which form the basis of this exhibition.
They were were discovered in the basement of the Marx Memorial Library in London but were in such poor condition that they could not be digitally displayed. Funds to finance their conservation were raised from Graham Bignall Studies, trade unions from Britain and Australia and MML supporters and friends.
The martyrs were actually prosecuted for taking illegal oaths rather than being members of the union. This was clearly a cover, as members of the royal family were not prosecuted for taking similar oaths as freemasons.
There are constant references in the press reports to the Tolpuddle workers and others joining “illegal” unions, a decade after they had been formally legalised.
The caution issued by local justices, mainly local landowners, in February 1833 referred to “mischievous and designing persons” inducing innocent labourers to join “Illegal Societies or Unions.” Anyone who joined these legal but disapproved of unions were characterised in the press as either simpletons led astray by “outsiders” or workshy troublemakers. Times have not changed that much.
The Dorsetshire County Chronicle in April 1834 proclaimed: “Because the great offenders of the trade unions in cities and towns are at large and unpunished, this can surely be no reason why the more ignorant agricultural labourers are not to be checked in their secret combinations and prevented from being the tools of designing men.”
A month earlier it had warned its readers that “even here the emissaries of discontent and sedition have worked their way and are endeavouring to seduce the lower orders from the paths of peaceful and productive industry.”
As for being workshy troublemakers? This was at a time of astronomical unemployment after the government had spent fortunes on the Napoleonic wars.
One victim of this was George Hand, a pauper, who was prosecuted in Taunton crown court in April 1834 for setting fire to hay on a farm where he had been made redundant. He had requested the parish pay, equivalent of the dole, of 3s 6d a week.
After that he was blacklisted by all the other local farmers.
How were the desperately unemployed described in the Chronicle in January that year? They were “almost exclusively idle, improvident, and dissolute, whose immoral and thievish propensities place them at a distance from the thrifty and honest.”
There are many other cuttings in this exhibition which make it clear that the sentences were made to deter others from joining unions. Apart from warnings of being transported for seven years, they were told that even indirect contact with a union could be punished by a fine of £20 — the equivalent of 10 months’ wages — or three months in prison. Anybody unwise enough to get caught twice could be transported for seven years.
The judge, Baron Williams, had told the Tolpuddle workers that the fact that they did not mean any harm was no defence because “public security” was at stake — nowadays an excuse for secret trials or detention without charge.
“Some public example should be made,” he pronounced and sentenced them to seven years’ transportation. To make it crystal clear he added: “The object of all legal punishment is not altogether with the view of operating on the offenders themselves, it is also for the sake of offering an example and warning.”
But if workers did not get the message they would be sacked. In Derby a strike of mill workers resulted in them all being dismissed and less than a quarter were taken back afterward, as reported in May 1834.
That meant there were 600 workers unemployed in the town who “it is evident, must for the most part be compelled to seek work in other places.”
A union branch was forced to dissolve in Yeovil in February 1834 “in consequence of the prompt measures adopted by the manufacturers, combined with the kind interference of J Newman and W Helyar Esquires, magistrates and the exertions of private individuals, thus relieving the members from the solemn engagements into which they had so imprudently entered. Nearly the whole of the men will return to their work forthwith, upon the conditions proposed by their masters.”
Although the Dorset Chronicle described the Tolpuddle martyrs on their conviction as “misguided men” it did at least quote the famous lines of one of the martyrs, George Loveless, in full:
“God is our guide: from field, from wave,
From plough, from anvil, and from loom,
We come our Country’s rights to save,
And speak a tyrant faction’s doom:
We raise the watchword ‘Liberty!’
We will, we will, we will be free!
God is our guide; no swords we draw;
We kindle not war’s battle fires;
By reason, union, justice, law,
We claim the birthright of our sires:
We raise the watchword ‘Liberty!’
We will, we will, we will be free!”
There was a huge public outcry against the vindictive sentence.
Even the Chronicle recognised that there were estimates of between 40,000 and 200,000 attending a demonstration in north London against the conviction and a petition signed by 250,000. “The men appeared to be all sober,” it reported.
Eventually this resulted in the martyrs being reprieved and returned to Tolpuddle, where they were all blacklisted and forced to emigrate to Canada, apart from James Hammett who became a bricklayer.
The exhibition runs at Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, details: tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk, until September 4, then at Marx Memorial Library, 37a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1, until October 15. It then tours to Warwick and Salford, details: marx-memorial-library.org.uk.