S&C Community Reporter Andrew Hurdle revisits the 2018 Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival in this exclusive photo essay.
It’s Sunday 22nd July 2018 and I’m in the small village of Tolpuddle, Dorset. The main road is closed, people are lining the kerbside, and kids are running around blowing whistles. On the edge of the village I can see thousands of trade unionists from across the country preparing to march: banners, giant balloons and placards at the ready.
Tolpuddle may be a small village, but it has a big history within the trade union movement.
We are here to mark an event that happened 184 years ago. In 1834, due to repeated pay cuts in the agricultural sector, a group of six agricultural workers came together to form the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. They were: George Loveless (also a lay preacher at the local Methodist church), his brother James Loveless, James Brine, James Hammett, Thomas Standfield and his son John Standfield.
The Friendly Society was effectively a trade union and as the 1799 Combinations Act (which prohibited trade unionism) had been repealed ten years earlier, the formation of the Friendly Society was not illegal. However, it did symbolise a problem for landowner and magistrate James Frampton, who was desperate to stamp out the collective bargaining and organising of workers on his land. Frampton contacted the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, for advice in how he could deal with the ‘Tolpuddle Six’ and Melbourne advised using an obscure law to put an end to the Society. The 1797 Unlawful Oaths Act was the law of choice. It prohibited groups from swearing oaths made in secret and had been brought in to dissuade mutineers, following mutiny on board sixteen Royal Navy ships at Spithead outside of Portsmouth Harbour.
On the 24th February 1834 the Tolpuddle Six were served with warrants for their arrest. They were subsequently tried and sentenced to seven years penal transportation to Australia, to work on farms for settled landowners. From the start, it seemed as though the main purpose of the trial was to put an end to the trade union movement before it began. Landowner James Frampton – who had instigated the trial with Lord Melbourne – was on the jury, along with his son, his brother in law, and magistrates who had signed the defendents’ arrest warrants. William Ponsonby MP was the foreman of the Grand Jury, who was Lord Melbourne’s brother in law, and the presiding Judge Baron Williams made clear his intentions not just to punish the men, but through them offer ‘an example and a warning‘ to other workers. He gave them the maximum sentence.
It wasn’t long before word spread about the Tolpuddle Six and the unjust trial. Trade unions and societies and the public began to organise, raise petitions, and hold demonstrations and political marches. The government responded by fast-tracking the transportation of the Tolpuddle Six. While George Loveless was at first too sick to travel, his friends were brought to Portsmouth and placed on the prison hulks York and Leviathan, lying off the island. George was sent to join them shortly after.
Despite mounting public protest, the Tolpuddle Six set sail aboard transportation ships in August and September 1834, but the public were not so quick to forget. The movement in support of the Tolpuddle Six continued to apply pressure on the government, including with a protest march that saw the government bring in battalions of infantry, cavalry and even cannon to police the protesters. The movement’s hard work came to fruition on 14th March 1836 when the government finally agreed that all six men were to be given full pardons.
George Loveless was the first to arrive back in England landing at Plymouth on the 13th June 1837. His brother James arrived a few months later with John and Thomas Standfield and James Brine on 11th September. James Hammett would not return until March 1839 due to being charged with assault whilst in New South Wales, and would be the only one of the six to return and settle in Tolpuddle. The other five stayed in Essex for a while but later moved to Canada due to mounting pressure from landowners.
The pardoning of the Tolpuddle Six was a victory for the trade union movement, and their story and struggle has fuelled the spirit of the trade union movement, even as it continues to face challenges from the government.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ festival is held every year in July, Trade unionists and activists from across the country gather in a field next to the Martyrs’ Museum, with most camping for the weekend.
At its heart, the festival is about celebrating the birth of the trade union movement and the victories that have been secured for working people. But it also remembers those who have fought for workers’ rights and paid a high price: not just in the UK but across the world.
For me and many others, it is also a chance to relax and enjoy the company of fellow trade unionists and activists and to meet more people in your own union from all over the country; to take part in debates on key issues; and to experience a wide variety of music, poetry and comedy across the weekend. The festival ends on Sunday as thousands of trade unionists march with banners and bands from the Martyrs Museum down Main Street to the other end of the village and back again. After the march there are speeches from organisers and guests, which this year included the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, and a performance from Billy Bragg.
I’ve been attending the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival since 2012 when my dad took me along for the weekend and I’ve kept coming back year after year.
I’ve always been a trade unionist ever since my first full time job. I was inspired by the stories of the early trade unionists and their fight for workers’ rights, including the London Match Girls, who organised in one day to strike over working conditions in 1888; the Copper Miners Strike in 1913 which led to the tragedy of the Italian Hall Disaster; and of course, the Tolpuddle martyrs.
There is so much to take away from Tolpuddle, not only from the story of the martyrs but also from other trade unionists. The more we collectively learn, the easier it is to collectively act. For me, Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival is about solidarity: remembering that although we come from different places, backgrounds, jobs and trade unions we are united by our struggles, past and present. Together we can continue to fight for the rights of working people, not just in the UK, but across the world.
A trade union is a family and that makes the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival an annual family reunion.
Find more information about the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Festival at their website.
This story is part of our ongoing series from our #ReclaimTheNews team, a group of local residents trained in investigative journalism in partnership with The Centre for Investigative Journalism. The group now forms S&C’s Community Reporting team. Watch out for their articles on the website and social media and help spread the word by sharing their articles with your friends and networks.