The small village of Tolpuddle in Dorset would be just like every other picturesque rural village in Britain if it wasn’t for a clandestine meeting of six men under a sycamore tree more than 150 years ago. George Loveless, James Loveless, James Standfield, Thomas Standfield, James Brine, and James Hammett would become known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and their story is seen by many as the defining moment in the development of British trade unions. Tolpuddle receives thousands of visitors each year, particularly during the annual Tolpuddle Festival every summer. There are several memorials in the village, including a museum, a statue, one of the martyr’s gravestones, and a plaque, many of which date back to the centenary of the martyrs’ conviction. The Tolpuddle App (which you can download onto your phone or tablet) guides visitors through the points of interest in the village and includes videos that explain the martyrs’ story. In May, I dragged my family to visit the museum and explore the village using the app.
The six men were agricultural labourers, and they met under a sycamore tree in the village to discuss their poor working conditions, low wages, and how to prevent things getting worse. They decided to form a Friendly Society, hoping that working together would give them more bargaining strength. The local authorities found out about the new trade union, and with support from central government, decided to put a stop to it. Trade unions weren’t illegal, but the political and social elites were afraid of the impact they could have, so an obscure law against taking secret oaths was used to charge the six men. The men were found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation. The severity of the sentence caused a public outcry and the martyrs were eventually pardoned, but not before they had spent several years in Australia. They returned home as heroes. The authorities had hoped that the men’s treatment would scare people and stop them joining trade unions, but the martyrs’ story had the opposite effect. Many argue that it kick started the fledgling trade union movement in Britain, which is why Tolpuddle is so important to modern-day trade unions.
The centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyr’s conviction was marked with huge celebrations in the village. A series of events were organised, and commemorative souvenirs were produced to mark the occasion. A number of physical memorials were also built in Tolpuddle. The most substantial is the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Memorial Cottages, a row of 6 cottages that were built by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to house retired agricultural trade unionists. The cottages included a library, which grew over time to become the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Museum. The museum is small, but it tells the Martyr’s story well, and contains several interesting items, including a tile from the local church that James Hammett scratched his name into, and commemorative items from various anniversaries.
Outside the museum is a statue by artist Thomson Dagnall. It was installed in 2002, with funding from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). It depicts George Loveless, who is considered the leader of the martyrs. Visitors are invited to sit beside George on the bench and contemplate what it must have been like for the martyrs to be separated from their families and transported around the world to a life in forced labour.
As you walk through the village, past St. Johns churchyard where James Hammett is buried and the sycamore tree, you will come to the cottage where James Standfield lived. It was here that the men held their union meetings, with up to 40 men crammed into an upstairs room. The cottage is marked with a plaque, installed by the TUC.
Most of the martyrs were Methodists, and quite heavily involved in the Methodist community in the village; George Loveless was a lay preacher. There are two buildings in Tolpuddle that have been used as Methodist Chapels. The first was built in 1818, but fell into disuse sometime after 1843. Since then it has been used for agriculture and storage, but in 2015 the Tolpuddle Old Chapel Trust was set up to purchase the building and renovate it. The Trust are raising funds to open the building up for “activities, exhibitions and community use”, so all being well there may soon be another memorial in the village to the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
If you continue walking along the main road through the village, you will eventually come to the current Methodist Chapel, which was built in 1862-3. Outside is an arch dedicated to the martyrs, built in 1912. On one side is engraved the following text: “Erected in honour of the faithful and brave men of this village who in 1834 so nobly suffered transportation in the cause of liberty, justice, and righteousness, and as a stimulus to our own and future generations” followed by the names of the 6 men. On the other side is engraved a quote from a speech George Loveless made during the martyrs’ trial: “We have injured no man’s reputation, character, person or property, we were uniting together to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children from utter degradation and starvation.”
There are numerous memorials in Tolpuddle that commemorate the martyrs and their story. They represent a wide variety of different types of memorial, ranging from the more traditional (plaques, a museum, and a sculpture) to the less conventional (cottages, a tree, and a gravestone). The also range in age: the sycamore tree is hundreds of years old, the memorials constructed during the centenary celebrations are 85 years old, and the sculpture is less than 20 years old. If the Old Chapel is successfully renovated, then that age range will be stretched even further. Looked at together, the memorials represent a fascinating landscape of commemoration that has been added to by successive generations. The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs has remained important to several generations of activists and trade unionists, and the plans for the Old Chapel and the annual Tolpuddle festival demonstrate that that significance has not diminished. I hope that the story will be remembered and celebrated for many more generations to come.