Suspense at Tolpuddle

WHILST these few days were being spent in anxiety but with cheerful confidence and trust by the men in gaol, those who had been left behind at Tolpuddle were in a sore state. The womenfolk hardly knew what to think. Their husbands had been in a Union which was bound by an oath of secrecy, and with the cynical attitude of the nineteenth century toward women, to a man they had kept their secrets from their wives. That, in fact, had been one of the chief reasons for the administering of the secret oath. George Loveless had said to the two men who came to consult with him about the formation of his Union, ‘But why bind men to secrecy? I have always done everything that I have had to do in the full light of the public. Why should we be afraid of the masters knowing we are combining together to get a living wage? So long as they give us the wage, we don’t want to press them by means of a society. But if they know we have one and what we are doing they may give the ten shillings per week anyhow.’

‘That’s all right so far as it goes,’ had been the reply. ‘But you’re a married man, and you know what women are. Tell them a little bit of what happens at one of your meetings and they will make such a tremendous lot of it before it gets the round of the village, that by the time it gets to the ears of the magistrates ’twill be murder and conspiracy you are committing. No, lad, keep your own counsel. Tell nobody about it, and least of all tell the wife.’

Half believing, he had consented. When woman’s tongue had become proverbial, who was he to go against the settled judgement of all time? It rather went against the grain, for George Loveless was a man who believed in his wife’s right to decide things for herself, but he knew there were other women, who might not be so worthy as his good woman.

Now they were in gaol, it was doubly hard that the women knew nothing about the why and wherefore. They knew their menfolk well enough to know that it could not be for anything really morally wrong that they had been taken. They had sufficient stock of provisions to last them out during this time, and the neighbours were kindly disposed to them. But there was no talk amongst them about the men who were taken away. They knew that the authorities were wanting to get hold of everyone who had been connected with the Union. And they knew there was at least one spy about, and there might be more. Edward Legg was given a wide birth, and Constable Brine could get no conversation out of any of the villagers, except as to the coldness of the weather or the heaviness of the soil, or the health of the cattle.

One man had been arrested who had nothing to do with the Union, and it was the plan of every other man and woman in the village of Tolpuddle and the villages round about, Affpuddle, Brians Puddle, Piddletrenthide, Tincleton, Cerne Abbas and the rest to keep a tight hold on their tongues. Even in the public-houses, nothing could be learned, for these were men who did not frequent public-houses, and those who did had little or no acquaintance with them. At the chapel things went on much as usual except that they felt lonely without their leading personalities. The minister from Dorchester came over one day, because he had heard from the three villages at which George and James Loveless and Thomas Standfield had been planned that Sunday that neither of them had turned up to take the services, nor had they sent a substitute. It was unprecedented in his experience that either of them should miss their appointment, but when he heard that three had all missed the same day, he felt it was a case for serious inquiry. He first of all called on Mrs. Loveless, who told him of the reason for the absence of all of them.

‘We really ought to have let you know, sir,’ she said. ‘But there, we are so terribly distressed with these good men being taken away that we didn’t know what to do, and clean forgot about the Sunday services. George will be sorry when he knows. He’s never missed an appointment in his life before. And then poor Mrs. Hammett was so distraught that we have all been trying to do something to help her, and old Mrs. Hammett, I am afraid, got her death of cold that day, when her daughter-in-law was in such a way. She took to her bed and she has not been able to get about since.’

‘But what is it all about, Mrs. Loveless? Your husband and James Loveless and the Standfields and James Hammett taken to Dorchester gaol you say? What on earth can they have been doing? It isn’t for preaching at Cerne Abbas or anywhere, is it?’

‘We don’t know what to think, sir. They were all out together except James Hammett several times lately meeting at a house, and they had a banner with a death’s head on it. But what they were after I don’t know. I only know that the pay they get for the work they do is desperately small. Seven shillings a week, sir, is all we have coming in from each of them. How can we live on it?’

‘But you don’t think they have been taken to gaol for asking for more wages do you. Mrs. Loveless?’

‘I don’t know what to think, sir, I tell you. It may be that. It may be anything else. You know they are always persecuting men in this village for being chapel men. Perhaps it is because the parson has set the magistrates against them for preaching. There may be men about here who know what they have gone for, but they won’t say anything if they do. There are too many spies about, sir. They say it is Edward Legg, of Affpuddle, who has put the magistrates up to this. But I don’t know. I only know I wish the suspense was over and we knew what was going to happen to them.’

After offering up a word of prayer for ‘our dear brothers in distress’ and that the Lord would forgive them for anything wrong they might have done, and succour them in their affliction, the minister passed on to see the Hammetts. Here he got no more information, but he found out how much in need of his ministrations they were. Mrs. James Hammett was still inclined to be hysterical. The old lady was evidently on her deathbed. The exposure to the severe weather in her scanty night attire had brought on such a terrible attack of coughing and shivering that it was clear she could not last much longer. She couldn’t even talk much, but what she said was almost all about her dear son James, away there in Dorchester—as good a son as a mother ever had—quiet and loving as he was, never in a hurry, never in a rage, working hard all his time and bringing home what wages he had, living the life that she had wanted him to live, a true Christian man if ever there was one—aye, and he had such faith in God, relying on His help in everything, and willing to go through anything because he knew God would be with him. Now if it had been John who had been taken, she could have understood it, because he was apt to lose patience with the masters and to say that they were not paying enough. She had never heard a word of complaint from James—no, not a word.

‘Hush, mother,’ said her daughter-in-law in a whisper. ‘You know James doesn’t want you to talk about it.’

Again the minister did what he could to comfort the distressed people. He told them, however, that he felt it was not right that they should be discontented with what they got by way of wage. Their masters no doubt gave all they could afford. There was a reward in the doing of the work, and they had other things far more important than the amassing of this world’s goods to think of. Let them redeem the time in spreading the light which they had from the knowledge of the love of God.

‘Yes, sir, we believe that,’ said John Hammett, who had just arrived to see how his mother was faring. ‘And do you think that my brother James was unmindful of those things? Or George Loveless? Who in this county has been more zealous in telling people of the gospel? But perhaps you don’t know, sir, that the Lovelesses and the Standfields have gone preaching on the village greens round about here for years and that the chapel at Kingston that was opened three or four years ago came because of their efforts, or that way back in 1828 Bere Regis Chapel was opened because of the people who had become Methodists through the preaching of Thomas Standfield and George Loveless. And perhaps you don’t know of the work that is going on at Cerne Abbas and at Stickland, which is nearly all their work. No, sir, they haven’t neglected that, and some of us are afraid that it is because of that they are in Dorchester gaol today. It isn’t the first time good men have been sent to prison. The Apostle Peter and the great St. Paul were both in prison, were they not?’

‘Yes, yes, my friend, they were. But it was rather different. There was not the Christian government in those days. We can trust the good men, all professing Christians, who govern the country. They will see that justice is done, you may be Sure.’

‘Well, sir, I wish I was as sure as you are. I dearly wish I could be standing my trial instead of my brother James. If ever a good man went to prison it is brother James.’

‘Well, well, we must just trust and hope for the best. I am very sorry your mother is so ill. I am afraid she is dangerously ill. May the Lord comfort you and keep you. And I will go to the trial when it takes place. Perhaps I shall see you there.’

‘I don’t know, sir. The masters are not likely to let us go away. And now James is not able to earn anything, I shall just have to stick to every day I can work. For we must help. There is nothing coming in at this house at all, and there are many mouths to feed.’

But some of them determined to go to Dorchester when the Assizes took place. None of the local labourers were summoned as jurymen. Mrs. James Hammett was too hysterical to be allowed to go, and Mrs. George Loveless did not feel equal to the journey, but there were one or two of the chapel people who went. The men dared not go. They felt that their presence there would be noted and that they would have to stand their trial next if they went. In fact, none of those intimately connected with these men felt that they could bear to see their men standing in the prisoner’s dock, just as if they had been common poachers or thieves or murderers. Young Elizabeth Hammett was pressed to go, though it was a sore trial to her. She had to tramp the seven miles to Dorchester in the early morning, and to accompany her, a woman who was friendly with them all, Jane Davis, decided to go also.

March 15 was to be the day of the trial, and a glimpse of the judge was seen by some as he passed through Affpuddle by road on his way to Dorchester. ‘Twas but a fleeting glimpse, however. There were two Tolpuddle men working on a farm near the main road as the coach passed. They knew it was the judge, for there were outriders to shew that on this occasion all the dignity and majesty of the law was to be exerted. They said when they got home that night that he looked a stern man, and very little mercy could be expected from him.