More than 180 years after six Dorset men were sentenced to transportation to Australia for swearing an oath to a new trade union, people still gather each year to honour their story. This weekend, I headed to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival for the first time to help celebrate the roots of the trade union movement…
The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival celebrates the story of six nineteenth century agricultural workers from my home county of Dorset, who fought to form a trade union, and the struggle of the working class to defend them.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ festival is held annually in Tolpuddle in Dorset, usually the third weekend of July, and is organised by the Trades Union Congress.
The event features a parade of banners from the major trade unions, a memorial service, speeches, workshops and live music.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of six agricultural workers who founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to protest against low wages for farm workers in remote parts of southern England during the agricultural revolution.
Their names, James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, James Loveless, Thomas Standfield, and John Standfield, will forever be remembered in the trade union movement.
In 1834 union membership was lawful and the movement was growing fast, yet the six men were arrested and convicted under an obscure law which made it illegal to swear a secret oath. They were sentenced to seven years penal transportation to Australia.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival
For many people in the trade union movement the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival is the high point of the year, bringing the movement together to celebrate their history and re-energise for future campaigns.
The festival organisers welcome a broad range of left wing and progressive groups and political parties and encourage wide debate in an atmosphere of respect and solidarity. It is a great place to sign up to support various campaigns, from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to Make Votes Matter.
This year the festival was dedicated to memory of Jo Cox, Member of Parliament for Batley and Spenborough, who was murdered in her constituency in June 2016. Her maiden speech in Parliament called on us all to remember that we have “More in common than that which divides us” and this has become a new watchword for uncertain times in the UK.
A busy programme of speakers included a key note speech from Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party and the Leader of the Official Opposition in Parliament in the UK.
It was also good to see two Members of the European Parliament for the South West featured in the programme.
I attended a really interesting panel discussion, featuring Molly Scott Cato MEP (Green), about the potential for green jobs in the UK. Clare Moody MEP (Labour) was among those who joined a panel to discuss what happens next after the EU Referendum vote.
But the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival is not all serious political discussion and debate, it’s also an opportunity to relax and enjoy some great British summer sun, camping in rolling fields in the heart of Thomas Hardy country.
There is interactive street theatre and plenty of live music to enjoy, as well as local food, beer and cider. Musical highlights were seeing Ferocious Dog (a folk band from Nottinghamshire) and festival favourites Dreadzone, whose music is an eclectic mix of dub, reggae, techno, folk and rock.
Other activities included poetry, Samba dancing, face painting, a drum circle, a swap shop, story telling and much more.
This was my first visit to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival and I had a great weekend. I would certainly recommend it for anyone looking for a small family friendly event that offers an opportunity to engage with politics at the same time as letting your hair down and enjoying some fun in the sun!
Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Museum
Tolpuddle has long been a place of pilgrimage for trade unionists and visitors from the UK and around the world. The museum is open year round and uses interactive touch screen displays to tell the Martyrs’ story in four sections: Before the arrest, The Oath and Betrayal, Transportation, and the Homecoming.
The festival has made some efforts to green the event. Recycling facilities are available throughout the site and festival-goers are encouraged to cut waste and re-cycle.
Stall holders are required to use bio-degradable cutlery, plates and cups. You can also buy a souvenir beer glass and use it over and over again.
The vast majority of people arrive at the festival by coach, and others are encouraged to car share.
The Festival is carbon-neutral and the museum buildings are powered by solar panels on the cottages and Liberty Barn, which generate more energy than is used on site.
More information about the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Museum and Festival is available from the website.