The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers was a trade society formed in October 1833 in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle. Its aim was to increase the wages paid to workers by farmers and land owners. It was created by George Loveless, a farm labourer, in response to his failed attempt to gain higher wages by negotiating with farmers and magistrates. Membership of the society was subject to taking an oath of secrecy and using a password, which was changed every three months, in a similar way to that of the Freemasons.
The government and local magistrates' experiences of wage-related rioting and rural violence, particularly in 1830, had meant that the state and land owners greatly feared any attempts to form trade unions and collectively raise wages. Consequently, on 24 February 1834 George Loveless, his brother James; Thomas Standfield, his eldest son, John; James Hammett and James Brine were arrested, despite the fact that trade unions were legally allowed. The men were instead subsequently convicted under a little-known part of the law governing the use of a secret oath in their society.
It is these men who have become known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Their sentence was seven years' transportation to Australia. However many, from all sides of the political spectrum, were deeply concerned about the harshness of the sentences and as a result of mounting pressure the government reduced them to four years.