The Assizes

Lord Melbourne had concluded that there must be no risks run at Dorchester Assizes this year. There was a vacancy on the judicial bench, and it gave him the opportunity to appoint a man whom he could trust to carry out the wishes of the Government with regard to this trial. Probably never since the days which Judge Jeffreys made notorious in this same town of Dorchester had a judge been sent down with such explicit instructions concerning a specific case. These men must be found guilty of some crime that would justify their transportation for seven years as threatened in the placard which the magistrates had had posted over the county. All over the country similar associations of men had been formed, and in the manufacturing districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire they had gained considerable strength, so much so, in fact, that His Majesty’s ministers felt they were a menace to the peace of the country. There must be no revolution in England such as had taken place in France. It was all very well for Shelley and Byron and Keats to write poetry about freedom, and for Wordsworth to make his high-sounding aspirations upon the liberty of the subject. But these were not aristocratic poets with wealthy friends. They were just humble farm labourers. They had contracted a disease and were in danger of infecting a whole county, if not the whole country, with their combinations. At present it was in a small way. Lord Melbourne, on the information of James Frampton, had not the slightest doubt that at any rate George Loveless was a dangerous man. He must be laid by the heels. No doubt they could find some evidence of dissipation, or drunkenness, or failing that, of disloyalty and sedition. Probably they were bad workmen whom the farmers would only be too glad to lose.

At any rate, Baron Williams had been appointed judge for this circuit. And Dorchester was to be the scene of his opening experiences. He must not fail. These men must be made an example of. The Grand Jury were, as usual, the gentry of the county. The Tolpuddle labourers had been discussed by them all in their homes, and all were sure that an example must be made. In this case it became the duty of the Grand Jury to frame an indictment against the men. They decided there was a true bill, but they wanted to make it such that the petty jury which was to try the case could not fail to bring in a verdict of guilty. Could they be prosecuted as rogues and vagabonds? What was their character? Were they idle workmen who were always giving their masters trouble? Their masters were there and wanted the men to be condemned, but they would not say that any one of them was an idle workman. How could they? They were the best workmen they had. Well then, after their work was done, were they public-house loungers? This George Loveless who seemed to be the ringleader, was he to be found talking loudly and boastingly of what he would do at the bar of the village inn? No: they couldn’t say that. Nobody had ever so much as seen him inside a public-house–nor any of the others for that matter, except young James Brine, and he was a very well-conducted lad. Well, hadn’t there been any complaint against them in their work? ‘Not a bit,’ said one of the farmers. ‘I never did complain of the way these Methodies do their work. They certainly give a hard day’s work for their pay. I will say that for them, discontented though they were.’

‘Well, but,’ said the judge, ‘isn’t there anything in their past life that points to insubordination? You say they are Methodists. I suppose they talk about having been converted. Weren’t they terrible sinners before they were converted—drunkards and liars and poachers and so on? I have heard that these Methodists generally have a long tale to tell of the terrible wickedness they used to practise and what a difference their conversion made to them? Don’t these men talk in that way?’

‘They don’t, my lord,’ said another farmer. ‘They couldn’t, for everybody knows them in the villages round about here. They’ve been among us all their lives, and they’ve been honest, upright men all the time. Even when they were children, I cannot call to mind any of them being in trouble even for the smallest bit of mischief.’

Well then, there is only one thing for it. We must proceed under Act 37, George III, cap. 123. This is an Act that was passed for the suppression of mutiny. It says that it is an offence to administer an oath of secrecy. We have a reliable witness to say that they did in fact administer such an oath. If they are truthful men as you say, they will not deny it. It is mutiny and we can get them found guilty on that count. Do you agree, gentlemen, that it is a true bill, under this indictment?’

Without discussion the whole of the Grand Jury agreed and so these men were brought up for trial by the petty jury. The charge was mutiny and conspiracy.

The six men had been down below in a miserable dungeon, which was opened but twice a year, with only a glimmering light. It had been cold and dank, but some wood was brought to kindle a fire. That, however, was green wood and wet. The resultant smoke in a confined space, already damp, was terrible. Every one of them had a fit of coughing and it was with a sigh of relief that they heard they were called into Court. There had been a protest by counsel for the prisoners against the use of this Act. It was passed to deal with the mutiny at the Nore and did not really apply to civil cases. The preamble to the Act plainly states that it is emergency legislation, passed to deal with an emergency and confined in its application to men in the army or navy. The body of the Act states grounds of misdemeanour. Counsel further contended that no case had been made against Loveless and his mates, and that the evidence produced all proved that they were men of unblemished character. The judge ordered the trial to proceed, stating that it had been held that the preamble of an Act did not affect the body of the Act, and that the clauses which followed the preamble could stand alone. The trial must proceed on the question as to whether these men had broken the law as contained in the body of the Act.

Counsel for the prosecution spoke of the disorder that was a danger to the community, the life of these labourers under their masters in Dorsetshire, how they received sufficient wages, but were continually shewing signs of discontent, and finally at the instigation of some disloyal people had formed a secret Union to force the masters to pay more than industry would allow. He spoke of the necessary measures which had been passed to deal with cases of this sort before, and proceeded to prove that the prisoners had in fact administered an oath of secrecy and so undoubtedly had broken the law.

He called first of all Edward Legg, of Affpuddle, who gave evidence that he had been approached by a member of this Union, one of the prisoners, George Loveless, and had gone to the meeting-place and been admitted. He described being put on his oath by the prisoner, George Loveless, all the prisoners being present and abetting. His counsel asked him particularly about every one of the prisoners. Was James Loveless there? Was Thomas Standfield? And James Standfield? And James Hammett? He answered in the affirmative to every one of them, and identified them as the men standing in the dock together. Counsel for the defence asked him if he was sure James Hammett was one of them, and he replied that he was sure. He had paid a shilling entrance fee on joining and was told it would cost him one penny per week afterwards. There were initiation rites which he described at some length. All seemed very poor and innocent. The next witness was from the same village and he gave the same sort of evidence but in a more hesitant manner. He was named Lock and had to be prompted by counsel very much.

You were in Affpuddle in December when the prisoner, James Brine, asked you to join the Union. Is that true?’ Yes, sir.’

‘Did he tell you what it was for?’

‘I don’t know, sir.’

‘But you must know, man,’ said the judge in threatening manner. ‘Come now, remember. Did the prisoner tell you about this Union?’

Yes, sir.’

‘Did he tell you it was against the masters?’

‘I don’t know, sir—my Lord, I mean.’

‘Of course you know. Just pull yourself together and answer me. We know how to deal with witnesses who try to dodge us. Now, didn’t the prisoner say it was against the masters?

‘Yes, my Lord.’

‘Did you go to the meeting?’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

‘And who were present?’

‘I don’t know, my Lord.’

Was the prisoner George Loveless present?’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

‘Was the prisoner James Hammett there? This man at the left, I mean,’ pointing to James Hammett.

Lock looked hard at him and didn’t recognize him.

‘I don’t know, my Lord,’ he said, ‘I don’t think so.’

‘Do you recognize the prisoner, James Hammett, as having been present?’ was repeated by the judge in a thunderous voice.

‘I don’t remember, my Lord.’

‘Don’t remember! You had better remember or it will be the worse for you. Now do you not remember? Was the prisoner James Hammett present?

‘Yes, my Lord.’

And so he identified every one of them. Then came the questions as to what was done. He was equally vague about that until the judge again sharpened his memory by his threatening attitude. He was a terrible witness, and gave way to fright every time.

Counsel for defence having heard him speak of the initiation ceremonies and the oath of secrecy rose to cross-question him.

‘Are you an Oddfellow?’ he said.

No, sir.’

‘Are you a Freemason?’

No, sir.’

‘Do you know anything about the initiation ceremonies of these bodies?’

The judge interposed. ‘That is entirely irrelevant, and the question should not have been asked,’ he said, and the counsel collapsed.

Another witness was the wife of a painter in Dorchester. She deposed that the prisoner, George Loveless, had gone to her husband with two designs which he wanted painted. He wanted them painting on wood and the thing was to be six feet high. One of them was to be a skeleton and the other a figure of ‘Death’. She took them in, but did not shew them to her husband. She was greatly shocked at such terrible things, but she knew that her husband would never think of painting them, so she destroyed them.

This witness also was cross-examined and counsel showed how flimsy her case was. He contended in his speech for the defence that there had been no case. It was just a little paltry trade society, and the things of which these men were accused were done commonly in such societies as the Oddfellows and Freemasons. Were they all then liable to be tried for issuing illegal oaths? Some of the highest in the land were members of such societies. Why, then, should these men be tried for so trivial a thing? They were honest, upright farm labourers, and he claimed their acquittal.

The judge’s summing up, however, was very bitter. He said that if these men had been allowed to go on with their wicked plans, they would have ruined the masters, stagnated trade, and destroyed property. Addressing the jury he added, ‘If you do not find them guilty you will forfeit the goodwill and confidence of the Grand Jury’. What a perfectly astounding proposition to put before a jury of men presumably selected to deal with the case on its merits and with intelligence. No jury had ever before been so degraded by implication as this was by this remarkable judge. The brow-beating of Judge Jeffreys has to take second place to the open corruption of Baron Williams. For here was a special jury, selected from amongst those who were most unfriendly to the farm labourers. The Grand Jury were all landowners and the petty jury land-renters. Under such a charge, and from such a jury, what justice could be expected? Even if there was one man dissatisfied, or inclined to mercy in this case, how could he in face of such a charge stand out against the others? All were dependent on the landlords for their holdings, and the threat that they would forfeit the confidence of those landlords if they did not bring in that verdict required more courage to withstand than people whose interests anyhow were esteemed by themselves to be against those of the prisoners would be likely to possess. The judge had summed up, and he saw the effect he had produced. For the sake of form, however, he felt that he should give these miserable labourers a chance to say something for themselves.

Loveless began to talk, and it was obvious that he knew how to talk. The judge promptly stopped him and told him to reduce what he had to say to paper. This Loveless was also able to do very rapidly. What he had written was handed to the judge, who read it through himself. Loveless asked him to be good enough to read it to the jury. ‘Do you want me to read this? ‘ said the judge. Loveless replied, ‘Yes, my Lord’. It was then so mumbled over by the judge to the jury, that although Loveless knew what was there, he could not comprehend it. This is what he had written:





If the jury had understood this, it would probably have made no difference to the sentence of GUILTY which they pronounced. Sentence was about to be passed, but one of the counsel arose in the Court and said that not one charge that had been brought against any of the prisoners at the bar was proved, and that if they were found guilty a great number of persons would be dissatisfied, ‘and I shall for one’, he added. The judge then adjourned the Court.

Two days later in a Court which did not contain quite the same people, the prisoners were brought to the bar again, to receive sentence. Said the judge:

‘Not for anything that you have done, or, as I can prove, that you intended to do, but for example to others, I consider it my duty to pass the sentence of seven years’ penal transportation across His Majesty’s high seas to each and every one of you.’

This was a terrible shock to all the five who had been present at the meeting of the Union when Legg and Lock were there. They knew that they were making a fight, and knew that the powers that were about them would do their best to defeat them, and so, in a sort of way they had been prepared for any blow which might fall. Not so, however, James Hammett. This man had nothing to do with their organization. He had never attended one of its meetings. He had not thought the matter out and was a strong reflective man who did not take steps without due consideration. He had known that something was afoot, indeed, and had seen the efforts at uniting that his brother and the others had been making, but had kept out of it himself, because he was not yet sure of his ground. He could not plead ignorance, but he could have pleaded aloofness. Why, then, had he been silent? It is one of the mysteries of the trial. And yet it has a simple explanation.

If James Hammett was not actually one of the members of the Union, his sympathies were naturally with them. His brother was in it, and any declaration on his part could only incriminate his brother. He had no confidence in the justice of a Bench of Magistrates dominated by a James Franklin, who was using the law in order to further his own private quarrel against the Unionists. He might have had confidence in the justice of the judge had he not been so obviously a partisan, sent there not to try men on crime that might have been committed, but to produce from somewhere some legal document which could be stretched far enough to include them in its category. His whole hectoring, bullying attitude made him appear to be a particularly offensive additional counsel for the prosecution. It was very doubtful if James Hammett could have got free even at the expense of his brother. It was more likely that seven instead of six would have been transported.

Then in this trial the dominance of George Loveless was obvious. All the prisoners with one consent decided that lie should speak for them, and right well did he carry out their wishes. If he was the head and front of their offending, he was also the supreme genius of their defence. Perhaps his ability did not achieve much for the moment, but it prepared the way for the agitation that was to follow. And George Loveless, speaking for the six of them, made James Hammett’s case common cause with all of them, respecting his wish that John should not be dragged into it. For a moment after the pronouncement of sentence, James Hammett looked as if he wished to say something, but seeing the proud attitude of George Loveless, fearless and unable to shrink even from that horrible prospect, he shut his lips tightly and went away to endure with those who were bound to him by ties of religion and friendship whatever hardship might come.

George Loveless somehow managed to get hold of a pencil and paper—just a scrap—and hastily wrote on them the lines which he had been composing ever since James had suggested it in prison. It was the last time he would see the crowd outside. He wanted a final message. What could be better than giving them a watchword, and a song to keep the movement alive in his absence? Here were the lines he wrote:

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!


He had just finished scribbling these mighty lines on this scrap of paper and concealing it on his person, when his hands were seized and locked together with the others. Loveless was on the extreme right of the group as it was taken from the Court-house to the gaol. There were people in the vicinity, and he made an attempt to pass the lines on to them. Shackled as he was, it proved impossible to get them through the guard. The latter took hold of the paper and had it passed through to the judge, with the statement that one of the prisoners had thrown this to the crowd. The judge’s fury was somewhat abated by the satisfaction that he felt in this dangerous man’s intentions being frustrated. This was flouting English justice. A condemned prisoner not cowed by such a sentence as he had just pronounced? Trying to stir up the people round about into fresh rebellion! This was worse than the original offence. What was the good of his coming to clear out this nest of hornets if the agitation was to go on, and the fellows were to prate of liberty and justice and law and reason? Well, the verses had been stopped before they could do any harm. The man would have a difficulty in communicating with anyone else before he was safely tucked away in Australia. But wasn’t this almost approaching the crime of high treason? Was it not a criticism of His Majesty’s judge in the execution of his duty? The man must have a care. There were still severer penalties that an offended judge could impose on a prisoner. But we must leave the judge mouthing his indignation. Baron Williams may have done some good in his life. He may have been a loyal servant of His Majesty. There may have been redeeming features of character and genius which would reclaim his name from utter execration. Alas! the only thing for which he stands in history is this one act of savagery, and he ranks in the records with Judge Jeffreys alone as an unjust judge. The evil that he did has lived after him. The good (if any) perished with his bones. He remains for ever as the outstanding and shining example of the party-hack turned loose on the Judge’s Bench. Not often in our island story has such infamy been perpetrated. Bias there may have been and doubtless has been from other party-hacks who have been put on the Bench. But in most cases, the responsibility of the position has resulted in a truly judicial attitude being preserved, so that the citizens of the country can rely that there will be absolute fairness in any trial, provided they can afford to pay for counsel of equal eminence to those on the other side. And even the advantages of a superior prosecuting counsel are counteracted in the case of most defendants by a judge who is watching that justice shall be done.