IN the February of 1834, very early in the morning, the beautiful village of Tolpuddle in Dorsetshire was awakened by the screaming of a hysterical woman. She made an appalling noise, and was obviously demented or in great pain. For years the impression of that terrific screaming was remembered and spoken about wherever the neighbours congregated. It was not only the succeeding events which kept it in mind, but the noise itself had impressed the village brain. Elizabeth Hammett, in common with her neighbours, had been awakened by it. She recognized something familiar about the tones of the voice, and wondered whether it really could be her sister-in-law, the wife of James Hammett, who was crying out. Young as she was—only sixteen years of age—yet her instincts told her that she must be about and helping. Across the yard she saw that something unusual was happening, James Hammett seemed to be in custody, and Mrs. Hammett’s brothers, George and James Loveless were also in trouble.
In another room the mother of the man arrested jumped out of bed. Though old and infirm, the distress of her daughter-in-law called her into immediate action. She struggled downstairs in her nightdress to see what was the matter. The noise was too terrible for her to trouble about dressing, and she hurried straight across to where the poor screaming woman was, and tried to comfort her as best she could. Bitterly cold though it was in this winter time the younger Mrs. Hammett was hot with her frenzy and exertions. Between her paroxysms, and accompanied by sobs and intervals of screaming and hysteria, she told the story of what had happened. The constable, James Brine, had called in the morning, and had taken James out of bed, forced him to dress, and arrested him.
‘Why have they taken James?’ said the old lady. ‘What has he done? They must have made a mistake. My James never did anything wrong to anybody. He was always a good worker. And they’ve got George Loveless and his brother James. They’re good, upright men. They couldn’t arrest them for preaching the word. And no one would say they were thieves or poachers or anything like that. It must be somebody else they’re after. It can’t be those three. Did James Brine say why he wanted them?’
Again came a scream from the poor woman. They could make no sense of what she said. Whilst they were talking, however, a boy came in with a tale of three other arrests. They had taken Thomas Standfield and his son John, and young James Brine as well.
‘Why, they are all of them chapel men, except young Brine,’ said Granny Hammett. ‘What have they been taken for?’
‘They do say that Parson Warren has somethen’ to do with it,’ answered the lad. ‘But they can’t send them to jail for being Dissenters. All those days are past. They can turn them out of their houses, and persecute them as they did the Tolpuddle folk ten years ago. But they can’t put ’em in jail.’
John Hammett, the brother of James, had in the meantime come along, and the women appealed to him. What was it all about? Why had James been taken away by the constable? And George and James Loveless? And Thomas Standfield and his son, John? And what was James Brine doing with that lot? He didn’t go to the chapel anyhow.
‘I don’t know,’ said John Hammett. ‘I just had a word with James as he passed me, but he couldn’t tell me much. He only knows that he has to go before the magistrates and it has something to do with the Trades Union. He warned me to keep out of the way, and if you know any one else who is a member of the Union, say nothing about it. If they are going to prosecute them for that, he says six of them are enough. Anyhow, he was never in the Union, so why they should take him I don’t know.’
But as he said it, John Hammett looked very downcast and ashamed of himself. He suspected that James had been taken instead of him and yet he couldn’t go and give himself up. It wouldn’t help James. It would only add another to the group of arrested men. And besides, the case had not yet been heard. Perhaps the magistrates could do nothing, and his friends would be released. ‘The Union?’ said Mrs. Hammett. ‘What’s that? James has said nothing about it to me. I know you and the Lovelesses and the Standfields have been very much together lately. Is that what has happened? I heard you had been to the masters and that they were going to give you all ten shillings a week, and little enough it was. But that was a long time ago, and they haven’t given you ten shillings a week. You’re only getting seven shillings now and you were getting nine shillings then. So I never did see what your meeting together did for you, and going to see the masters. You are worse off than if you had never said anything. You think it is something to do with that, do you?’
‘Yes: I’m afraid that is it, and James was never with us. But George and James Loveless and the Standfields and Brine were with us. But say nothing about it. It can do no good for them to know that I know anything. If they want to twist the words of some of us, the less there are of us to be twisted the better. I’m afraid of those lawyer chaps. But they won’t get much out of George Loveless. He knows how to stick up for himself and to stick up for his mates as well.’
Her daughter-in-law was now calmer and the old mother was feeling very cold with being there in the morning air in her thin night attire. So she went upstairs again and tumbled into bed, shivering as she did so. She couldn’t help much and she felt as if she was going to be ill. It made her fret to think of James, the son who was such a splendid man, being dragged away to Dorchester to be tried before the magistrates, innocent as he was of what they would accuse him of doing. She knew he would trust in his God. That was his way. She had faith in God herself and had taught her children the same. But James had been somehow different from John. His faith was almost childlike. Great big man he was.
She had hoped that he might be a minister some day. He seemed cut out for it in every way. But somehow after Thomas Standfield and George Loveless had felt the ‘call to preach’ it had not come to her son. And then later James Loveless had come on the plan and still her son did not feel called upon to offer. He had always been ready to stand by them. His prayers in the village prayer meetings had seemed to lift the little congregation to the very Throne of Grace as no one else’s did. He said very little, but you felt a quiet strength about his character. You knew that he saw things that other people didn’t see. He had just as much certainty about unseen things as good Mr. Lowthian, the minister at Dorchester, or as James Oke himself who had been such a glorious man for preaching on the village greens. She had looked at him sometimes with his strong and beautiful face and had thought that he was very like one of the greatest of the Methodist preachers of the day. There was the same lofty brow, broad across the forehead, the same imaginative eyes, the same strong mouth. Only a farm labourer of course, and earning but seven shillings a week! But that was getting his daily bread, and was only part of his life. She knew he was a good workman,—in fact all of them were. They had no superiors in the whole county and to a Dorsetshire woman that was like saying there was no better in the whole country. What Dorsetshire men couldn’t do, there was no other Englishman could.
The seven shillings a week for work well done meant money more than earned. But there was another life, and a much more important life to James Hammett. On Sunday he was transformed. His mother remembered the time when a few of the Tolpuddle people had gone over to Cerne Abbas. James had been amongst the first to offer to go. There was no gospel preached there except what they got at the Church of England, and George Loveless, ever the leader in all noble enterprises, had come to the prayer meeting and had said that he felt a call to go and speak in the open air at Cerne Abbas. The little band had gone forth, and they stood together on the village green. George Loveless had given out a hymn. She remembered it was his favourite:
All things are possible to him
That can in Jesu’s name believe.
He had spoken about the words. ‘Only believe in Jesus,’ he had said, ‘and there is nothing you cannot do.’ He had spoken about the Christian character and how men’s lives had been changed because they had believed in Jesus. Then someone had come up into the crowd and asked him if believing in Christ could get them a wage on which they could keep body and soul together. Would believing in Christ keep them and their wives and families from utter starvation and degradation? And George had answered that that was one of the things he was after. He believed in God and was praying to God every day of his life that they might be free. It would come. It would come. Weeping might endure for a time, but joy cometh in the morning.
‘Well,’ said the man, ‘I wish you and I could see some of the joy now, George.’
‘We can,’ said George, ‘ I should say the same as you, but I know that we shall be free. I feel that it is coming. All things are possible to me. I am out to do what I can to help bring it about. Come and join us and help us to preach Jesus in this village.’
And then he went on to speak of the power of God, and what Christ had done, how he had overcome all sorts of evil things.
‘Yes, that’s true,’ said his interrupter. ‘But He came to a bad end. There isn’t much freedom about the cross, is there?
‘No,’ said George, ‘there isn’t, and it may be that you and I will have to suffer like He did, and I am ready for it for one. But we are going to have freedom. All things are possible to us. It may be we shall go under, but we shall win in the long run. Do you think Jesus Christ minded the cross? He knew He was bringing the joy of salvation to mankind. He endured the Cross, despising the shame. But He is sitting at the right hand of God now. I don’t care what comes of it. I have the same promises as He had. And I am determined that I will strike a blow for freedom. We will be free.’
As she thought of these things, Granny Hammett tossed about on her bed. She was not cold now. She was hot, with occasional fits of shivering. And as she thought intermittently of James on his way to Dorchester, Elizabeth downstairs could hear her sobbing as if her heart would break. Between her auntie across the yard, who was still frantically screaming as she thought of that early morning scene and the indignity of it, and her granny sobbing her heart out, the poor sixteen year-old girl was herself nigh to distraction. But there was housework to do, and she was the only person in a fit state to do it. So Elizabeth went on with the housework with a heavy heart.