PAST the fine old tree on the village green and on to the Dorchester road, six great healthy men marched along in custody. They might have resisted the constable and got away. But these were men who had respect for the law. They had never known anyone suffer intentional injustice from it. They knew that the magistrates were in many cases hard, and that poachers had been treated too severely. But poachers were thieves after all, and one of the elementary things which these prisoners had always believed in was the necessity of the Ten Commandments. They had never stolen and were in fact too honest-minded to have been tempted in that direction. From earliest boyhood, thieving seemed horrible, and poaching was thieving, so they were not inclined to condemn even the most savage of the sentences that some poachers had had to undergo. They were law-abiding in every way, and if the representative of the law told them to go with him before the magistrates, there was nothing they could do consistently but go. Besides, they had done no man any harm. They could easily prove their innocence.
The biggest and finest of them all was George Loveless. Dressed in the garb of the time, with his shirt open at the throat, and a cap of great age covering his fine raven locks, he was a striking personality. He stalked along with confidence in every stride. The feature that drew one’s notice to him was the piercing eye of the prophet. As many a man and woman had said when they had listened to him on the village green, or in one of the local chapels, ‘He seems to look right through you’. His power of leadership was undoubted, and it was character and decision that accounted for it. He was a leader, however, who would always take on his own shoulders the chief responsibility in difficulty or danger. There was nothing of dejection in his attitude this morning. He felt the power of the righteousness of his action and walked along as if he was going to conquer the world. A part of that confidence was imparted to his comrades, in spite of their less individual independence.
His brother James was a lesser edition of himself. He was something more than a mere copyist, admiring and helping his brother as he always did. There was mutual affection and confidence in each other with these two men. Dark and upright like George, James seemed to get some of his inspiration from contact with the stronger character. What he would have been if George had not been there it is difficult to say. Would he ever have taken the steps that had led them there if he had had to act alone? There seemed no doubt about his action and attitude as it was, but one occasionally saw those furtive glances at his elder brother, as if he was seeking George’s approval for the things he said. He would express opinions independently; and at any rate in public, George never let him down by refuting them, but somehow there was always a feeling that if those opinions so confidently expressed did happen to be different from George’s thoughts, they would be quickly changed after the two had met privately and discussed them.
James, like his brother, was a local preacher. He had gone through the preliminary ordeal that every local preacher had to undergo. He had given evidence of personal calling by God to the work of preaching the gospel. He had studied the scriptures and Mr. Wesley’s sermons, and had been questioned about them and given intelligent answers. And yet, although this shewed an intelligence that was independent, it was generally felt in the village that if George had not started that way, James would not have been on it. Together the two brothers made a fine team. When George’s magnificent voice gave out, as it did sometimes, James would carry on until George was ready again. And they were now walking down the road in custody, and by their side was James Hammett, a silent man at the best of times, and now apparently brooding on the things that had culminated in his present position. Of his company he could not be ashamed. Four out of the five others were members of his own Church. But respectability had always been associated with the ideas of his youth and his young manhood. He dearly loved the worship of God on the sabbath. He was ever first amongst those who were at chapel and he took his part in any quiet work that was afoot. If any were in need, James Hammett was the man they naturally went to. It took an effort for him to express himself except in prayer. In that he seemed to go out of himself for the time. He was indeed one of those who might be considered the pure in heart that see God. To be dragged before the magistrates, even in suspicion only, was a terrible ordeal for him.
He had a strong, determined face, with a forehead high and broad, eyes well set apart, a finely shaped nose and mouth that had every appearance of belonging to a man who spoke with eloquence. Yet he had no eloquence. He had taken to the prevailing fashion of shaving the lips and chin but leaving whiskers round the throat. He looked the typical Methodist parson of the finer type, clear-eyed, thoughtful, tender, and true. Dressed like the others in clothes that had been gathered together after years of labour, with a view more to their lasting qualities than to their appearance, he walked along, his head erect, joining in conversation with George Loveless occasionally, but in the main listening to his description of what had been happening.
Behind them walked the Standfields, father and son, and James Brine. Thomas Standfield also was a well-built man, sturdy and strong for his age. He had preached now for many years and was a great friend of the Lovelesses, with whom on many occasions he had appeared on the surrounding village greens. Not so eloquent as George, nor so tender in his language as James Loveless, there was a quiet forcefulness about his words and an evident reality about his experience that added to the effect of the team when they worked together. His son was of a more boisterous type. He looked upon this march as an adventure. He felt for his father, because he knew that he must count it a disgrace to be marched in that manner all the way to Dorchester. But his friend Jim Brine was with him. They were young and had seen the hardships their fathers and older friends had had to endure. It seemed to these young fellows a terrible shame that men of such outstanding ability should have to fight for a paltry eight or nine shillings a week. They were not yet old enough for the iron to have entered into their soul. But they were in this thing with the older men and were out for a fight if necessary. They had less to lose than the other four, but they were determined to be loyal to their comrades at all costs.
‘I was just going off to my labour at daybreak,’ said George Loveless, ‘I had just left my house in fact, when James Brine there met me and said he had a warrant for me from the magistrates. It was a strange greeting, and I could see Brine didn’t like his job, and I had no idea what it was about; so I said “What are its contents, sir?
‘Take it yourself,’ he answered, ‘you can read it as well as I can,’ and of course so I can. So I read it and found that I was summoned to appear before the magistrates for administering an unlawful oath. ‘Are you willing to go to the magistrates with me?’ said he. ‘To any place wherever you wish me,’ I replied. So here we are. What the magistrates will want I have no idea. I’ve got a placard here which I saw posted on a wall three days ago, which is supposed to be a caution from the magistrates threatening to punish with seven years’ transportation any man who should join our Union. I never heard of any law against the Union. And anyhow it wouldn’t apply to you. You aren’t with us, James.’
‘No,’ said James Hammett, ‘but John is. And I’m afraid they’ve got me in mistake for John.’
‘Well, but John will never let you suffer instead of him, surely,’ said warm-hearted George Loveless. ‘I’ll tell Brine he’s made a mistake at once and he’ll let you go free, and get John another time.’
‘No, no, don’t do that,’ said Hammett, looking round to see if the constable had overheard. ‘It might be the death of his wife and the child she’s expecting if John were taken. You didn’t hear my wife, perhaps, but she fair went off into hysterics when I was brought out of bed, and she’s a bonny, healthy woman. If that wife of John’s had the same trouble to go through, she’d be just as bad. No, no; I’ll suffer whatever is to come. I’ll not betray my own brother, and I’ll not let him come to my rescue either if I can help it. He is sure to come where I can see him. Besides, now they’ve got me they’ll keep me. It wouldn’t be any use saying I was the wrong man and telling them to get hold of John instead. They’d only say we were both in it.’
It was a long speech for James Hammett, but he was acting under the excitement of the moment. He hurried over the words and said them in a whisper so that their guard should not know what he was saying. Whether he heard or not, the constable said nothing either then or at any other time about it. Loveless made no further attempt to persuade Hammett to alter his plan. He knew the man, and, moreover, the reason given appealed to his strong common-sense, much as he regretted afterwards that he had allowed an innocent man to go to his trial.
They walked along, for the most part moodily, the seven miles that led to Dorchester, and then were brought before the magistrate, James Frampton, the half-brother of the constable who had arrested them. A man from the village of Affpuddle, who had been with them in the formation of the Union, was with the magistrate. The magistrate, who was also the chief mover in the matter of their arrest, had been preparing himself for some time for this event. He had written to Lord Digby, saying: ‘Within this last fortnight I have had private information that nightly meetings have been for some time held by agricultural labourers in the parishes of Tolpuddle and Bere Regis, where Societies, or, as I believe they are called, Unions, are formed, where they bind themselves by an oath to certain articles. I am told they are conveyed blindfolded to the place and do not see the person who administers the oath. I am informed that they are to strike work whenever ordered by their superiors, and that they are to demand an increase of wages.’
This had led to a communication with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, Lord Digby calling these Unions ‘combinations of a dangerous and alarming kind’. How could these persons be brought under the cognizance of the law? Lord Melbourne suggests that ‘in cases of this description suitable provisions relative to the administration of secret oaths have been frequently resorted to with advantage’. With this opinion in his pocket, the magistrate feels that he is safe. Edward Legg, the man from Affpuddle swears to having been present at a meeting where secret oaths were administered at which every one of the six prisoners was present. They were questioned as to their various movements of late and answered truthfully and honestly to every question put to them. Said George Loveless, ‘We are not aware that we have violated any law. If so, we must be amenable, I suppose, to that law.’
The magistrate, James Frampton, committed the whole of the six men to prison, and wrote off with glee to Lord Melbourne that he had committed six men for administering unlawful oaths. ‘Nevertheless,’ he added, ‘it is the opinion of many respectable inhabitants that we shall not be able to suppress these meetings, but that they will continue to increase to an extent that will be truly alarming unless your Lordship should think proper to recommend the issuing of some Proclamation against such a Society or offering some reward for the discovery of the offenders. To which Lord Melbourne replies that he is doubtful of the prudence of this course. As a good Whig, representing in theory the more democratic element in the government of England, and with certain Radical ideas amongst his followers, Lord Melbourne did not court publicity for any steps he might take against these labourers. He feared newspaper criticism. There were those amongst his Tory opponents who had democratic tendencies also. And it was to be but a short time before there would be an Election and much publicity. So the Secretary of State writes that he had not ventured to express himself fully in a public letter, the substance of which might find itself in a newspaper.
‘Is it possible for the Government to advise the magistrates or for the magistrates to advise the farmers to discharge these men for doing that which may not only be legal but just and reasonable? Would not the respectable parties so acting take upon themselves a great responsibility, incur much odium and subject themselves to observations which it would be difficult to reply to?
‘It has always been found difficult to obtain co-operation among the master manufacturers, and the farmers are still more timid, more disunited, more attentive to their particular situation and individual interests, and at the same time less intelligent and apprehensive. My impression is that if the recommendation of the magistrates became very unpopular, or in any way in danger of failure, you would be abandoned by many of them.
‘You will naturally ask me, “Are we to wait, with our arms folded, whilst this combination spreads itself through the peasantry and prepares undisturbed the most dangerous results?” I am compelled to answer that in the present state of the law and of the public feeling I see no safe or effective method of prevention.’
What followed between the magistrate in question and Lord Melbourne must be a matter of conjecture. At this time apparently His Lordship was not prepared to take strong action. He feared the Press and he feared that the men had a just case and therefore could not be easily condemned. At the same time he obviously felt that it would be of enormous benefit to the country if such a combination could be nipped in the bud. If he could ensure success he was in the mood to try for it. But he would not court failure, for then he would be worse off than if he had not tried. Lord Melbourne was not the man to let a pettifogging matter like individual right and justice interfere with what he conceived to be the good of the State. From combinations, if they became powerful enough he could only scent the possibility of revolution. France had gone through her bloody time, and it had been the sansculottes who had made themselves feared. The Government of England after that was in a constant state of fear lest any additional power of combination might bring about similar effects to those obtaining in France. At all costs such results must be prevented. So it seems that a new Judge was appointed and a new Dorchester Assizes was to be held which should be a fitting sequel to some of the worst experiences of the West Country under Judge Jeffries. Baron Williams was sent. He was expected to find these men guilty and to sentence them to as severe a sentence as possible, so that their exemplary punishment might strike terror into other Trades Unionists in other parts of the country, and especially in Yorkshire and Lancashire, who were getting far too powerful for the liking of His Majesty’s Government.