I have known about the Tolpuddle Martyrs since I read about them in a Blue Peter annual sometime in the early 1980s (a quick Google reveals that this was the 11th annual, and I have just bought one on eBay – and yes, children’s TV was more radical back in the day). I have visited various places associated with the Tolpuddle Martyrs over the years, and have been to all of them except Australia and Tasmania. There is something really satisfying about visiting the places where people struggled for freedom from oppression – a feeling of connecting with their struggle, being inspired by their revolutionary spirit.
Who were the Tolpuddle Martyrs?
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of farm workers who formed a trade union, which was illegal at the time. They were arrested, tried in Dorchester, and convicted for “forming an illegal combination”. Most of them were transported to Australia, except George Loveless, who was sent to Tasmania. They served only part of their sentence, because there was a massive campaign (including an 800,000 signature petition) and a huge public demonstration on their behalf (the first successful protest march in Britain), and eventually they were pardoned in 1837. After their pardon, they returned to Tolpuddle via Plymouth, but the local land-owners continued to make their lives difficult, so they moved to Greensted in Essex, where James Brine married Elisabeth Standfield (daughter of Thomas Standfield, another Tolpuddle Martyr) in Greensted Church. Things were also difficult in Essex, as the local landowners started to persecute them there too, so they decided to emigrate to London, Ontario. Only one of them (the only one with a prior criminal conviction) remained in Tolpuddle, and he is buried in the churchyard there. A Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival and Rally is held every year in Tolpuddle, in July.
The first Tolpuddle Martyrs location I visited was Greensted Log Church in Essex (only I didn’t know at the time that they were associated with it). It is quite fascinating in its own right as the oldest wooden church in the world. The nave is made of large split oak trunks, which was the standard Anglo-Saxon method of church-building, and probably how they built their temples too. The record of the wedding of James Brine, one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, can be seen in the register of the church.
Tolpuddle village and museum
Then I visited was Plymouth Quay. There is a plaque on the quayside saying that it was where the Tolpuddle Martyrs returned from Australia.
And finally, on a visit to Canada in 2014, I visited London, Ontario, where the martyrs ended up. The only thing left to see was their graves, but we found most of those.
Siloam cemetery, across the road from the site of the church where George Loveless was minister (photo by Yvonne Aburrow, CC BY-SA 4.0)
George Loveless’ grave (photo by Yvonne Aburrow, CC BY-SA 4.0)
We also visited another very moving museum that day, the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” museum, home of Josiah Henson and the Dawn settlement, where slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad could start a new life).
Australia and Tasmania
One day, I will complete my pilgrimage by visiting Australia and Tasmania, to see the places where they went. I suppose for the sake of completeness, I should also go to Dorchester (UK), where their trial took place.
Why is this important?
The history of labour and trades unions is littered with injustices like this, where people struggled for rights that we take for granted today – like the Haymarket Martyrs, who were campaigning for an eight-hour day. In fact, just about every right you have at work was won by the efforts of trade unionists. But there are many countries in the world where it is still extremely dangerous to be a trade unionist.
Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a trade unionist. Thousands of trade unionists have been murdered there since 1989, mostly by right-wing paramilitaries in collusion with the security forces. Other violations of workers’ human rights include threats, displacement, declaration of strikes as illegal and arbitrary detention of trade unionists.
It is also important to realise that the ruling classes never give away any rights voluntarily. The “Whig Interpretation of History” would have us believe that progress happens on its own, without the need for struggle. But every freedom wrested from the grasping hands of successive authoritarian governments, every right won from the callous factory owners, was gained after protracted campaigning, protests, riots, and resistance.
The ruling classes would like us to believe that struggle and resistance doesn’t make any difference; that everything is under their control, so we might as well not bother. Stories like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Haymarket Martyrs, the Suffragettes, the Zapatistas, all show that resistance bears fruit in the end.
The featured image shows the Green at Tolpuddle. It is believed that whilst sitting under this sycamore tree, the six Tolpuddle Martyrs aired their grievances and agreed to form a trade union. In 1834 they were tried at Dorchester assizes for petty crimes and were transported for seven years to Australia and New Zealand. © Copyright Gillian Thomas and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. Her most recent book is “All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca”. She has also written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is genderqueer, bisexual, and has been an anarchist socialist green leftie feminist for the last thirty years.