The persecution of trade unionists and their families: from Tolpuddle to Ascott-under-Wychwood to the miners’ strike

New writing has underlined the importance of the 1873 case that victimised striking farmworkers and led to a national outcry

Commentary icon13 Jul 2023|Comment

Professor Keith Ewing

President of the Institute of Employment Rights


This is the time of year when the Labour movement gathers to remember the sacrifice of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.  As they do so, a newly published book reminds us of the continuing persecution of farmworkers and their families, tracing the story of the ‘Ascott Martyrs’.  The latter were a group of sixteen women and two infants from Oxfordshire who were jailed in 1873, also for trade union related activities.

The case is much less well known than Tolpuddle, though it is alluded to fleetingly by the Webbs in their History of British Trade Unionism published in 1920, where reference is made to the ‘ruthless victimisation’ of farmworkers who joined Joseph Arch’s National Agricultural Labourers’ Union (NALU) in 1872.  The latter is thought to have been one of the first moves in the direction of unionisation of farm workers since the Tolpuddle transportations.  According to the Webbs, in the 40 year or so period since 1834, good times and bad times had passed without any ‘combined effort to improve [the] condition of [farm workers]’.

The Webbs also record how ‘the audacity of the field labourer in imitating the combinations of the town artisan provoked an almost indescribable bitterness of feeling on the part of the squirearchy and their connections’.  Farmers were said not only to engage in vicious anti-union practices, but also to enlist the ‘cordial support of the rural magistracy’ in doing so.   As revealed by the Ascott -under-Wychwood case in rural Oxfordshire, this conspiracy of power was used oppressively not only against striking workers, but also against their impoverished families.


The Ascott women were charged under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1871, which had been passed following the report of a Royal Commission on Trade Unions in 1867.  The Act – which retained a number of criminal offences for trade union related activity previously introduced by the Combination Act 1825 – was condemned by Marx who wrote in Capital, vol 1, on the ground that by

Parliamentary escamotage the means which labourers could use in a strike or lockout were withdrawn from the locus of all common citizens, and placed under exceptional penal legislation the interpretation of which fell to the masters themselves in their capacity as justices of the peace.

According to the historical record, 20-30 Ascott women allegedly confronted two young strike-breakers – John Hodgkins and John Millin – who had been recruited by a farmer called John Hambidge.  The women sought to persuade the young men not to go to work.   Seventeen of the women were subsequently charged under the 1871 Act with molesting and obstructing (notably not intimidating) Hodgkins and Millin, for seeking to coerce the men to quit working for Hambidge.  Under the 1871 Act, molestation and obstruction were defined in one of four ways, though none of these methods is mentioned in the charge.

It is likely, however, that the form of molestation and obstruction used was ‘watching and besetting’, a term still employed in contemporary labour law.  The charges against one of the women were dropped, but the remaining sixteen (who were not legally represented) were convicted.   On being found guilty by the magistrates, the women were sentenced to seven days in some cases and ten days in the others.   As the Webbs tell it, ‘two justices, who happened to be members of the rural clergy, sent ‘sixteen labourers’ wives, some with infants at their breast, to prison with hard labour’.

The prosecution was almost allegorical, continuing a pattern that has endured ever since:  worker grievances; class based legislation; and a class based judiciary to enforce the law.

Unsurprisingly, the proceedings attracted widespread condemnation, including criticism of the magistrates by the then Home Secretary (Henry Bruce MP) who questioned the severity of the sentences.  Why was it necessary to convict them all?  Why was it necessary to imprison any of them?  And why were they not simply fined instead?  On the last point Bruce revealed stunning ignorance of the legislation:  prison was the only authorised sanction.

The convictions nevertheless touched a nerve, even in the harsh Victorian climate, with demonstrations in Hyde Park, many letters to The Times (then an important institution in the days before the current multi-media highways and the draining authority of national newspapers), and questions in Parliament.  Even The Spectator challenged the continuation of clerical magistrates.  But according to contemporary lawyer and philosopher Frederic Harrison in one of the letters to The Times, this ‘gross miscarriage of justice’ was ‘no solitary case’, with the 1871 Act ‘responsible for constant cases of similar harshness’.

Harrison – an adviser to the TUC who had served on the 1867 Royal Commission – was prepared even to make allowances for the clerical magistrates who had imposed the sentences:  they ‘may have brought the Act into discredit; but it is the Act which led the two magistrates into their blunder’.   His point is reinforced by the report of a hastily appointed Royal Commission on Labour in 1874, an appendix to which highlighted dozens of cases in which the 1871 Act had been used against strikers in a host of industries since it had been introduced.


The 1871 Act was repealed and replaced by the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, which ironically did not remove the offence for which the Ascott women were convicted, and indeed in some respects widened its scope.  One of the trade union concerns of the time was that the 1871 Act – like the 1825 Act before it – applied only to make it an offence to engage in molestation, obstruction and intimidation by workers in disputes with employers.   It was thus perceived as ‘class legislation’.   In what was a phyrric victory, however, the 1875 Act did not remove but applied criminal liability beyond trade disputes.

The key significance of the 1875 Act was the formal extension of the criminal law to everyone engaging in conduct said to constitute ‘intimidation’ and/or ‘watching and besetting’, where the conduct was undertaken ‘wrongfully and without legal authority’, This bizarrely satisfied the TUC who in self congratulatory tones thought that ‘the work of emancipation [was] full and complete’.  Not all trade unionists were so sanguine, a motion passed at the TUC Annual Congress in 1890 to condemn the new law as being just as ‘dangerous to the liberties of the working classes’.

It seems likely that had the 1875 Act been in force in 1873, the Ascott women would have been convicted under the law as it was amended.  They would probably have been found to have acted ‘wrongfully and without legal authority’, and it would have been open to the magistrates to find that they were at least ‘watching and besetting’, though it is to be noted that they were now authorised to attend at or near a workplace to obtain or communicate information.  Otherwise, they may have been helped by the wider range of penalties that could now be imposed, which included a fine of up to £20.

Full details of these and multiple other aspects of the case are now to be found in a newly published collection of essays:  Keith Laybourn (ed), The Ascott Martyrs – Why Did the Rural Establishment Imprison Sixteen Women and Two Babies in 1873 (Charlbury, 2023).  The ten chapters cover a wide range of issues, including the social, economic and political context of agricultural work and life in the 19th century.  They also cover specifically the status of women in the rural economy, the emergence of agricultural trade unionism, and the impact of emigration, as well as the role of the law and the clerical magistracy in its administration.

As such the book builds on the pioneering study by Beverley McCombs, The Ascott Martyrs (2nd ed, 2017), and the more recent article by Oxford legal historian Mark Curthoys, ‘Oxford’s Tolpuddle? The Case of the Ascott Martyrs’ (2021) 86 Oxoniensia 159.   The book is published by Paul Jackson, founder of the Ascott Martyrs Educational Trust, set up ten years ago to draw attention to what had been locally a much neglected story, acknowledged then only by a small plaque on a bench situated on the Ascott – under – Wychwood village green.   Details of the Trust are to be found on its Facebook page.

The Ascott convictions are an important reminder of the great injustices suffered by women in particular in the development of the modern labour movement.  They are also an important reminder that the current law has a long pedigree, with a version of the 1871 Act still to be found on the statute book.   We will return again to its ongoing significance next year, as attention turns to the 40th anniversary of the miners’ strike, and in particular the role of families and communities in the conduct of the dispute.

This piece was originally published by the Morning Star. We thank them for their permission to reproduce it here.

Professor Keith Ewing

Professor Keith Ewing is Professor of Public Law at King's College London. He has written extensively on labour law including recognition procedures and international standards. He is the President of the Institute of Employment Rights and a Vice President of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.