The Bishop’s Apology

Remembering the Martyrs

The world famous Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival is held every year in late July in the small Dorset village of Tolpuddle.

The festival lasts three days, starting on Friday: ending on Sunday. There are speeches, music, and performance. Tony Benn was much loved for the wise words he spoke at the Festival in past years: Jeremy Corbyn was given a hero’s welcome there in recent years.

On the Sunday, Trade Unionists march with bands and brave banners down the main street of the village.

Before the procession of banners and music, a wreath is laid on the grave of James Hammett, one of the Martyrs who lies at rest in the peaceful graveyard of the village church. Trade Unionists pay their respects, as do his descendants.

Jeremy Corbyn – laying a wreath on the grave of James Hammett

James Hammett, alone of the Martyrs, stayed to live and work in Tolpuddle on his return from servitude as a convict in Australia.

In 1875, James was presented with an engraved watch and an illuminated address by the Agricultural Workers Union. He three times and had seven children. Before his death in 1891 he became an inmate of the Workhouse in Dorchester, a pauper, so as not to be a burden on his family.

It was said that when he was buried, instructions were given that there should be no speeches made over his grave. (1)

The inscription on James’ gravestone (erected in 1834 and carved by the gifted craftsman, Eric Gill) reads:









The date at the top commemorates the date of the six martyrs being found guilty of taking an unlawful oath, and being transported to Australia. (2)

In 2012, the Bishop of Salisbury apologised for how the Church of England had treated the Martyrs and spoke of the need for the church to highlight poverty and inequality.

Standing before James Hammett’s grave, among others gathered to commemorate the Martyrs, his words speak from the heart:

“The only place for an Anglican Bishop to begin at the commemoration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is by saying ‘sorry.’

The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is one of the shocking stories in the history of Trade Unionism and the British Labour Movement. The national Church of England let down the people by siding, as it is so easy to do, with the powerful.”

This article tries to explain why the Bishop spoke so eloquently. Not only were the Dorset landowners opposed to the very idea of Trade Unions, but so were the local clergy.

The betrayal of the Martyrs

The Vicar of Tolpuddle, at the time, was the Reverend Thomas Warren.

The Reverend Warren was held to have betrayed the Martyrs by denying his part in their attempt to come to an agreement with local landowners about reductions to wages. (3)

The Martyrs refused to work for less than ten shillings per week, at a time when agricultural labourers’ wages had been reduced to seven shillings per week and were due to be reduced further to six shillings per week.

It is worth noting that rent and a basic diet of tea, bread and potatoes has been estimated to have cost a typical rural family thirteen shillings per week in the 1830s. (4)

The Vicar, moreover, was regarded with bitterness by many villagers who were Methodists: George Loveless, one of the Martyrs, was a gifted Methodist Lay Preacher.

At least four, and possibly five, of the six Martyrs were Methodists. (5)

In April 2017, Dukes of Dorchester offered six letters, written by Thomas Warren, for bids in an auction of paintings, books and furniture.

One letter includes the following self-pitying passage which highlights the opposition felt by so many of the gentry class, including established clergy, towards Trade Unionism:

“‘The papers tell you of the disturbances in our village, and the transportation of 6 of my parishioners: while there was hope, I did my endeavour to get their punishment mitigated, for the sake of their miserable wives and families. But these Unions must be put a stop to or the country will be together by the ears.

I did, I say endeavour to lessen their distress. I wrote a testimonial to the Judge as to their otherwise good qualities as labourers. I wrote to Mr Pitt and another magistrate but mark the consequences of not going the whole length they wish. On Sunday, they came to me with a petition to parliament, so worded, that I could not sign it. Last night they broke every pane in the lower range of my drawing room window, eight squares!” (6)

James Frampton, local landowner and JP, the man who more than any other ensured the Martyrdom of James Loveless and his comrades, spoke out against any relief or assistance being offered by the parish to the families of the Martyrs.

One of the Martyr’s wives later wrote, “(they) meant us to suffer for the offences of our husbands.”

Whilst imprisoned in Dorchester, James Loveless was condemned for his actions by the Prison Chaplain. He and his comrades were “idle”, “discontented” and intended the “ruin” of their masters.

The Lay Preacher said that he could not understand why landowners should be considered to be in danger of poverty whilst they kept horses to hunt.

As for the clergy, they “might do with a little less salary.”

In response, the Chaplain “thundered” that he believed the Court meant to make “an example” of the Martyrs. (7)

Loveless also issued a stinging rebuke to the Reverend Henry Walter, Vicar of Haselbury Bryant, Dorsetshire, after hearing that he had been described as a “wicked man” and a “strife maker and peace breaker.”

A rebuke to the past

The Bishop of Salisbury’s words in 2020 are a welcome rebuke to the past (8)

After his opening words (quoted above) the Bishop explained how the “terrible incident” of the Martyrs’ trial and punishment, together with their being granted a “pardon” (he puts the word in inverted commas) has become a cause for celebration. He notes the fact that in the 1830’s relations between the established Church of England and the Methodist church were at a dismal low. He makes clear that the Church must speak for the poor, and is explicit about the wrongs suffered by the Martyrs and their families:

“No one now can doubt the Church was wrong. There is a debate about whether the Church is of, with or for the poor, but if we are to be like Jesus Christ there has to be an evident commitment to the poor. A reduction of agricultural wages in 1833-4 from nine shillings per week to six shillings was plain wrong.”

Bishop Nicholas then outlined some of dire metrics which measure how unequal and troubled our country is becoming – the low wages, the quadrupling of youth unemployment and the implacable deepening of the gap between rich and poor, with the top 10% of the population 500 times richer than the bottom 10%.

He spoke then of the grim global picture – “this gap (between rich and poor) is even more shocking with two billion people living on less than 2 dollars a day.”

The Bishop speaks plainly:

“It is not ‘political’ to point out facts. The failure of the Church to do that with the reduction of agricultural wages in the 1830’s is one of the lessons from today … that we (the Church) have a concern for the poor cannot be disputed.”

There are hard lessons for us:

“Jesus’ summary of the Law to ‘Love God and love your neighbour as yourself’ is what has made Christianity one of the great moral religions of the world. Its failures are less to do with Christianity having been tried and found wanting, but of being tries and found too difficult.”

The task for the Church, for us all, is to “bring good news to the poor.”

Words which were not spoken from the pulpit of St John the Evangelist, Tolpuddle, in 1834, and words which should surely ring in the ears of all those who have a part to play in the governance of this beautiful yet troubled land of ours.

Source Material

(1) Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, Meet the Martyrs, James Hammett

(2) Historic England, James Hammett Monument

(3) Tolpuddle Village Website, History of St John the Evangelist Church

(4) British Library, Newspaper Report on the sentencing of the Tolpuddle Martyrs

(5) Methodist Heritage, “Tolpuddle, near Dorchester, home of the Tolpuddle Martyrs”

(6) Dukes’ Saleroom Catalogue, Auction 12 April 2017, Lot 834, Tolpuddle Martyrs interest: a group of letters written by the Vicar of Tolpuddle

(7) James Loveless, “The Victims of Whiggery” – quoted in the site below:

(8) Bishop of Salisbury, Tolpuddle Sermon, 2012