Saturday, 7 February 2009

Let me not live to be useless

Lord, tet me not live to be useless. (John Wesley)

John Wesley’s care and concern for the poor; his work for prison reform; and his opposition to slavery were commendable.

But he was a high Tory, and his concern for the poor was rooted in the notions of self-improvement. That concern, laudable as it was, did not take into account that the cards were stacked against the labouring classes.

In 1799/1800 the Government of William Pitt the Younger passed what are known as the “Combination Acts”

Pitt the younger was a reactionary, unlike his father William Pitt the Elder who had also been Prime Minister.

(Pitt the Elder was most sympathetic to the cause of the American Colonists, and for him are named Pittsburgh, PA, and also Pittsfield, MA [where I served for 16 years])

But under Pitt the Younger, various reactionary Acts were passed. Habeas Corpus was suspended (shades of George Bush the Younger), and Combination Acts were passed by Parliament in 1799 and 1800.

These Acts forbad the combination of two or more workers, or two or more employers, for the purposes of what we now call “collective bargaining” re: wages etc.

The Law was never enforced against employers, but it was used against employees - in effect banning the formation of Trades Unions, (shades now of Ronald Reagan).

The Combination Acts were repealed in 1824, thus Trades Unions became legal.

In 1833 a number of farm labourers in the Dorset shire Town of Tolpuddle joined together to form the “Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers”.

Led by George Lovelace (a Methodist Local Preacher) their avowed intent was to resist the reduction of the pay of labourers, from 10 shillings a week to 8 shillings a week.

Their joining together (a combination) was by now legal, but their actions created alarum for their farmer employers. One of these farmers took action when he learned that the labourers, under Lovelace, had taken an Oath of Mutual Loyalty.

So it was that they were prosecuted under the “Unlawful Oaths Act” of 1797, an Act which had been all but forgotten.

They were convicted under this Act. The Judge stated that though they had done nothing wrong, he would hold them guilty to set an example to others.

They (six in all) were sentenced to be transported to a penal colony in Australia.

Within two years the public outcry was so great that their sentences were remitted. Returning to Plymouth, England, five of them promptly emigrated to Canada, and only one returned to Tolpuddle.

These six men have been branded as “The Martyrs of Tolpuddle”, and they are counted as the founders of Trades Unionism in Great Britain.

Their impulse was religious, as was the founder of a political party for working people. He was also a Methodist preacher. His name was Keir Hardie (1856 -1915) He founded the “Independent Labour Party”. More about that tomorrow.

At one time my Methodist born parents had been keen supporters of the Labour party. Thus I grew up with tales of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and of Keir Hardie.

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