The Tolpuddle Martyrs

Christine Kapak
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The Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival is an annual event celebrating a pivotal moment in trade union history.
For all the family entertainment, comedy, music and stalls on the periphery of the festival, the focus remains very much on six local men who changed the way this country thought about employment rights. That their story takes us back more than 180 years does nothing to diminish its huge repercussions and relevance to this day.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were Dorset farm labourers who, when faced with falling wages and the threat of further cuts still, vowed to protect their income. In 1834 they formed a 'friendly society' - a type of organisation that foreshadowed trade unions - which wasn't in itself a crime. However, with the French Revolution not far from memory, any sniff of civil unrest was dealt with harshly. They were arrested and charged with taking a secret oath and, after a two-day trial, were pronounced guilty. Their leader, George Loveless, insisted: "If we had violated any law it was not done intentionally. We were uniting together to save ourselves, our wives and families from starvation."

His plea fell on deaf ears. "The safety of the country was at stake," was how the judge defended his harsh sentence of seven years in a penal colony in Australia.

The working class of the country didn't agree. Outraged, a demonstration was swiftly organised in London and a petition attracted some 800,000 names. When a new Home Secretary took up position, the Tolpuddle men were pardoned and, four years later, returned to England. Their suffering wasn't in vain for the incident is widely credited with paving the way for the creation of trade unions and better employment rights, not just in this country but across the globe.

Celebrating this, while also addressing current political challenges, is at the heart of the Tolpuddle Martyr's Festival. Alongside the packed programme of events and impressive line-up of speakers, there's also opportunity to walk around the village with a free App, narrated by actress Maxine Peake, providing more background information and spotlighting key places in the tale of Tolpuddle's heroes.

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