Saturday 25 May 2013

William Osmond - Somerset Agricultural Labourers Union Martyr 1873

William Osmond lived at Charlton Horthorne in Somerset, he was aged about 56 years and for 20 years he had worked on a farm at Milborne Wick. He was employed by the same farmer (Charles Bugg) for all those years and the last fifteen years as a shepherd.

Osmond's wages had varied between 8s and 10s per week, including Sundays.

He had a tied cottage at a value of 1s per week, 1 ton of coal and a patch of potato ground which was worth about £1 a year.

Being a shepherd he had the benefit of the country custom of being paid 6d for every twin lamb at the end of the season and the sale of surplus lambs.

Osmond was a good and caring worker, who often during the lambing season would be at his work for five to six weeks, without ever going home to bed. The 1872 season was not a particularly good one, more surplus lambs had been sold in 1871 but despite every ewe had at least one lamb and there had been thirty pairs born. Osmond sold the surplus at the end of the season and settled down for another years work.. He also joined Joseph Arch's new National Agricultural Labourers Union.

The farmer had cautioned the workers on his farm about the evils of the union and had not expected any of his men to defy him. Osmond not only joined but encouraged his workmates to join the union as well.

The farmer extremely angry at this perceived act of treachery and sought ways to punish Osmond.

In early march, 1873, some three months after the sale of the last of the surplus lambs, Osmond was at home in his cottage.

It was late at night and he was preparing to go to bed, when there was a hammering at his door and two policemen entered his tiny front room.

They immediately arrested Osmond and charged him with the theft of a large quantity (fifty four) of lambs (valued at £5), he was imprisoned for two days and two nights,

He was brought up before the magistrates who having heard the allegations committed Osmond to stand trial at Taunton quarter sessions. Bail was granted, but in such a sum, that it was expected that he would remain in custody to await his trial.

However, being a union man Osmond now had friends who rallied round and put up the bail money

At the Taunton Assizes, (in July 1873) Osmond's case was argued by a barrister funded again by "friends" Osmond as was the rule at the time, was not allowed to give evidence, but his defence revolved around the custom of surplus lambs, The jury was split ten in favour of an acquittal and two both farmers against. Again at that time only a unanimous verdict could be accepted by the trial judge,

The jury were locked up until they could agree. Osmond was eventually found guilty but with a recommendation to mercy,

William Osmond was sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour.

The very next day, a trial took place in the same court, before the same jury, of a shepherd who was alleged to have stolen more surplus lambs from a smaller flock (38 lambs the property of Walter Bugg). The man Edward Forward was not a member of the union and was unanimously acquitted.

When the gates of Taunton prison opened and Osmond walked free at the end of his sentence Joseph Arch, George Mitchell and other friends of the union were there to greet him and present him with a purse of sovereigns, valued at £20. Mitchell said the money was "a testimonial" to his innocence and fidelity to the union, to which cause he had become a martyr!"

Friends and relatives immediately noticed that Osmond looked a lot healthier upon his release.

The meager diet was found to be superior to that of a shepherd's and Osmond had gained twenty three pounds in weight during his six months imprisonment.

The enemies of the union had done him a favour by giving him a rest from the starving slavery of the farm labour and promoting him to "indoor employment" with better food.

On the following Saturday night a torch light procession took place in Milborne Port. Osmond rode at the front, accompanied by the Compton brass band. Some 2,000 people thronged  the narrow streets, many wearing on their heads and chests bills, which proclaimed - "Osmond,, Stallard. Justice Justice" "Somerset unpaids 1873. Tekel!" there was a large police presence but there was no hint of trouble.

At a subsequent open-air gathering several long speeches were made by Joseph Arch, George Mitchell and others denouncing the conviction of Osmond. 

Resolutions were unanimously passed supporting the NALU and petitioning parliament to abolish unpaid magistrates, and assimilating the county into the borough franchise.

George Mitchell said that he was glad that the poor shepherd had been treated so well and kindly during his incarceration, and he was exceedingly grateful to the Governor of the prison, for having allowed no harshness to be used against him.

They had presented Osmond with the 20 sovereigns to show the farm labourers of England that they would not be deserted in time of need.

The farmer (Charles Bugg)who prosecuted, or rather persecuted Osmond, died shortly afterwards (27th January 1874); it was said of sheer remorse, for he had scarcely ever held up his head after Osmond's imprisonment.

One from the Plough
George Mitchell 1826-1901


A William Osmond aged 53 appears on Census for 1871 Wincanton, Milborne Port

A shepherd in June 1872 in one of the better paying areas of England was reported to be paid 19 shillings a week, £1 extra during the lambing season, 2 shillings a day shearing, £3 during harvest. hours 6am - 6pm, half hour break and one hour for lunch.