This piece reflects my own attempts to understand the significance of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and how their story has been told over the last 178 years. But as it’s written for History Workshop Online, it is important to credit Clare Griffiths who wrote a paper in issue 44 of History Workshop Journal in 1997, called ‘Remembering Tolpuddle’. Clare’s work was very useful to me when I started thinking about the roots of the story a decade ago.
Every July in the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset people assemble to commemorate the six farm labourers convicted in 1834 of administering illegal oaths and sentenced to seven years transportation. Those of us with an interest in working-class history are familiar with the key points of the story, and the campaign to win the men a pardon, their eventual return to England and brief involvement in Chartism before five of them and their families emigrated to Canada (James Hammett remained in Dorset and in a final irony lies buried in the yard of the Anglican church whose vicar betrayed them). But you can’t spend much time with the Martyrs story before you wonder why we choose to celebrate people who were victimised and whose struggle failed? And if we are going to celebrate defeats and those punished by the state, why the Dorchester labourers?
This isn’t the time or place to explore the social anthropology of martyrdom cults in world religions but there’s a recurring role over thousands of years of the favourite son, the golden boy and sometimes the pure daughter, being sacrificed in order that the crops will grow, the rains will fall and redemption will come. John Barleycorn may seem to be an old song about making beer but there’s something else going on there too. So maybe a symbolic death on our behalf does meet some odd need in the human psyche (and the Tolpuddle men may not have hanged or died under a cavalry sabre, but transportation in 1834 was as good as death- your family would not expect to see you again), but it still leaves the question – why have the Tolpuddle trade unionists become so symbolic of working-class struggle?
A couple of years ago, working my way through copies of progressive newspapers of the 1830s in UCL’s Senate House library, I was struck by the frequency of reports about large trade union funerals around the country, complete with details of numbers, the wearing of particular colours, the carrying of regalia like swords and wooden axes and so on, and it seemed fairly clear that trade unionists of the period saw a funeral procession as an organising tool, showing how membership would guarantee you a good send-off, not an insignificant thing at a time when a pauper’s grave was dreaded by many. Amongst Home Office and police correspondence about plans for dealing with marches in support of strikes, I found letters about dealing with possible unrest at upcoming funeral processions. Hansard reporting on House of Lords business on April 28th 1834 described the Lord Chancellor saying that funerals were being used to promote trades unionism, about which he felt “unspeakable regret”. So deaths of union people, even by natural causes, seem to have been used to demonstrate the collective power of workers, and this was seen as such by the establishment.
I was trying to find links between such ceremonies and older forms of similar behaviour in the Guilds and the Masons, when it occurred to me that the habit of painting images of deceased union leaders on Lodge and Branch banners to be paraded through the streets could, at a push, be seen in direct descent from the icons of saints once used in religious ceremonies. This was interesting but didn’t prove much. But when I came to look through the TUC’s archives about the preparation for celebrating the Tolpuddle Martyrs Centenary in 1934, I was struck by the importance placed on the Tolpuddle men’s respectability and sobriety, in the case of George Loveless in particular, verging on saintliness. There was strong refutation of the allegation that they were all to some extent involved in the Swing disturbances of three years before the men were arrested, and the drafts of articles for the book the TUC published to mark the centenary were all read by Walter Citrine, the General Secretary of the TUC. I wondered how a man in his position could find the time to underline, drop exclamation marks in the margins and annotate page after page, but then realised how at the time it seemed essential for there to be not the slightest suggestion that the Tolpuddle men had been burning ricks and writing threatening letters to employers just a few years before. The picture had to be of god-fearing, lay- preaching family men, who had reasonable demands. The stress laid on the poem seemingly written by George Loveless after he was sentenced was accorded great significance (even if he almost certainly was not the author)
“God is our guide, no sword we draw, we kindle not war’s battle fires, by reason, union, justice, law, we claim the birthright of our sires…”.
As plans for the 1934 celebration were made, there were dissenting voices, not just from the usual suspects in the Tory press but also from the Left. Allen Hutt, a leading member of the Communist Party, deplored the use of the Tolpuddle labourers to symbolise 19th century working class struggles and suggested that the Glasgow spinners tried for killing a blackleg in 1838 or the Chartists who staged an armed rising in Newport in 1839 were far better exemplars of resistance. And this seems to get to the nub of the issue. The State and the employers saw in trade union activity the seeds of revolution and working people who had the gall to ask for an increase in wages would one day, if not stamped on hard, organise an armed insurrection. Trade union leaders knew this very well, and concluded that the best way of improving conditions for their members was to work inside the system, behaving respectably and advancing their case by negotiation. Being pragmatists, they also knew that any would-be revolutionary organisation was riddled with police spies and that the government had few qualms about turning out troops to deal with strikers who got in the least belligerent. On the question of reform or revolution, most trade union leaders preferred the former.
The same arguments rumbled on into the postwar era and an edition of ‘The Landworker’, the journal of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, in August 1949, carried an article headed “Reds Cause Trouble at Tolpuddle”, recounting how 100 members of the Dorset & Hampshire Communist Party with red flags joined the tail end of the procession forming up to parade through the village. Brother Gooch MP, the Union’s President, left the march with a number of others on the basis he wasn’t going to parade with Communists. He was “sorry so many people down here have been led astray, as the presence of so many Communists in the parade indicated…” , which suggests that the total numbers present cannot have been that significant if a 100 CP members joining the back of the march can be referred to as “so many..” Worries about the activities of tiny numbers of different bits of the far left were still around in the 1990’s, and as the numbers turning out annually for the rally on the 3rd Sunday in July continued to shrink, paper sellers of various types seemed sometimes to outnumber the trade unionists who had come for the rally.
It was around then that the TUC decided that the rally had to transform itself or it would just quietly give up the ghost. So, steadily over the next few years, around the turn of the millennium, music was introduced, fun activities for children appeared, speakers were encouraged to speak for shorter periods and were drawn from a wider spectrum (the novelty of women speaking was momentarily controversial), speeches were interspersed with bands, and a beer tent and food stalls were set up. Then a neighbouring farmer agreed to lease the TUC a large field and a camp site was introduced together with a second stage for more acts and space for discussion groups on contemporary issues. These days campers arrive on Friday morning and some don’t go until Monday, our hot showers and clean toilets are famous in the world of festivals, and the parade on Sunday is so large that the head of the procession is back at the festival site before the tail end moves off. Samba bands and New Orleans jazz compete with traditional brass bands, and 100 ‘Reds’ at the back would hardly be noticed or cause anyone to blink an eye.
In 2012, building on more modest efforts in the last two years, a radical History Workshop looking at workers responses to the law since the early 19th century opens the Tolpuddle Festival on Thursday 12 July. It has a possibly over ambitious programme and is open to anyone fascinated by the history of the ordinary people. We hope that with the involvement of those participating it will become part of the annual Festival programme. And perhaps because trade unionists these days are not so concerned with appearing to be respectable, people will continue to talk and argue about the links between Captain Swing and the Tolpuddle events, and in Yorkshire the shearmen who formed the nucleus of the Luddite rising in 1812 will be commemorated. It is arguable that there is now a new generation of both amateur and professional historians of working class history who are much less enamoured by the romanticism of rebellion. Rather there is a more mature understanding that in our history violent resistance and democratic process are closely entwined and not competing strategies. What may be an appropriate response one year may be seen very differently the next.
In the end the Tolpuddle Martyrs remain something of an enigma. Were they paragons of virtue or realistic rebels who saw dozens hanged and hundreds transported after Swing and other rural uprisings and concluded that it was worth trying something different? My guess is probably both. In any event the Loveless brothers, the Standfields, father and son, Hammett and Brine deserve to be remembered, along with all the others who over the centuries fought in different ways for the cause of liberty and freedom and often paid the price for their stubbornness. Old Walter Citrine is probably spinning in his grave………
Go to www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk and click link in menu on left to see details of the Tolpuddle Radical History School or direct to www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/index.php?page=radical-history-school