MAY 6th marked an event which remained so long in the minds of one of the people, that details of it were reported to a casually visiting minister forty years later. It was the open-air meeting at Cerne Abbas which the Lovelesses were to have held, and which Mr. John Barnett had promised to take in their stead. Like them he was a keen student of scripture. His subject was taken from Isaiah 61. It was notable, however, that it was a passage which is quoted in St. Luke’s gospel as the words of Christ Himself.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,’ started off this substitute for the men now lying in the hulks or on the high seas. ‘My friends, George Loveless and his brother James were to have been at this service tonight. You have heard them here. They are now condemned to seven years’ transportation, for no wrong that they have done, but because they were trying to save themselves and their families from utter degradation. Did you hear George Loveless when he was last here? If so, do you not agree that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him? Yes, and He was on George Loveless in exactly the same way as He was on the prophet Isaiah and as He was on Jesus Christ when He quoted these words in His day. For it goes on to say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” because “the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” It is a great passage this prophecy of Isaiah. It goes on to say that, “I, the Lord, love judgement, I hate robbery for burnt offering “.
‘I hope the Spirit of the Lord is upon me tonight. We cannot forget our dear brothers in their terrible condition. But I am here to preach good tidings to the meek. Good tidings, you say, to Mrs. Loveless and Mrs. Standfield and Mrs. Hammett, and the poor mother who lies dying there in Tolpuddle! Yes, friends, I have good tidings for them. God is not dead. Weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning. I am here to proclaim liberty to the captive and the opening of the prison to them that are bound. But you think I am talking about their earthly prison. No, I am afraid we cannot do anything there. Anything that can be done, you may be sure, has been tried. But, thank God, our dear friends have tasted this liberty for themselves. They may be bound, but they have the glorious freedom of the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. My friends, those men who are in the hulks are better off than you are, if you are slaves to your sins and vices and your selfishness. You can take it from one who knows them, that however much they may be crushed under the heel of the tyrant, there is not one of that band of six men who is not a free man in heart and in mind.
‘Like you I am sorry for them from the bottom of my heart. I am more sorry for the older men, James Hammett and Thomas Standfield, than for the others. I can’t think of George Loveless as being an older man. There is such glorious freedom in his outlook. But with all our sympathy, we have one glorious certainty. God will deliver them from all their captivity. Whatever happens to them they are safe in the hands of God. Brothers, sisters, have you that confidence?’
And so the address went on. Mr. Barnett spoke as one inspired. The crowd remembered, and especially those people very dispirited but very loyal, who had come over from Tolpuddle to back up this effort. He had never spoken like it before, but he had the suffering men in front of his eyes as he was speaking. And in true Methodist fashion he was ‘redeeming the occasion’ by using their example as a stimulus to others. He remembered it. Perhaps it was he who, forty years later, told the minister about it. Or perhaps it was one of the crowd. In such a spirit, if he had wanted he could have stirred them up to riotous and lawless behaviour, but his object was not that. It was a gesture of support and of sympathy. It helped those brave women in Tolpuddle greatly when they heard of it, and so they went on to endure to the end.
They heard from their menfolk. John Standfield wrote to his mother and told her that they were in good heart, and that his father was bearing up well, that Uncle George Loveless seemed a little sick and weak, but was recovering, and that all of them were determined to make the best of it. He got a reply from her just before the ship sailed.
George Loveless wrote to his wife of May 28th, 1834, just after sailing, and his letter was later quoted in the House of Commons. He said:
‘I thank you, my dear wife, for the consideration you have ever paid me, and you may safely rely upon it that as long as I live it will be my constant endeavour to return that kindness in every possible way, and hope to send to you as soon as we reach our place of destiny, and that I shall never forget the promise made at the altar; and though we may part awhile I shall consider myself under the same obligations as though being in your immediate presence.’
In another letter, also quoted in the House of Commons, he said:
Be satisfied, my dear Betsy, on my account. Depend upon it, it will work together for good, and we shall yet rejoice together. I hope you will pay particular attention to the moral and spiritual interests of the children. Don’t send me any money to distress yourself: I shall do well for He who is the Lord of the winds and the waves, will be my support in life and death.’
Truly the captives were delivered from the worst kind of captivity. They were free in soul. They had minds full of the quiet confidence, which in spite of the surrounding influences, was destined to carry them through all their trials.
Other people besides Jane Davis had been at work with Thomas Wakley. She had been right in the vision that had come to her on the return journey. The return of Wakley to Parliament was to have its repercussions. He came down to Tolpuddle to inquire into the character of the men for himself, and visited the wives of those who had been taken. With Mrs. George Loveless he was specially impressed. They chatted about her husband and the life he would have to endure, and also said something about her own condition. He saw the dear little children surrounding her, and then asked her whether she had a letter from her husband which would enable him to judge for himself of his character by the tone and temper of his language.
‘Yes, sir,’ she said, ‘I have. He writes beautiful letters to me.’
So in a trembling way, with shaking hands, which Wakley never forgot, she gave him the documents, her countenance denoting unspeakable agony, scarcely mitigated by an increasing flow of tears, her little children listening and partaking of the sorrows of the scene. He did not use those letters at once (they are those quoted in this chapter), but when the chance came, they were to be tremendously effective.