In the 1830s life in villages like Tolpuddle in Dorset was hard and getting worse. Agricultural labourers could not bear more cuts to their pay.
In 1834, farm workers took an oath of solidarity and formed a trade union. This was then a crime.
Six leaders of the union were betrayed and arrested. The men were tried at Dorchester Assizes in March 1834, found guilty of administering an unlawful oath and sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia.
Transportation to Australia was brutal. Few ever returned from such a sentence as the harsh voyage and rigours of slavery took their toll.
As news of the sentence spread, the fledgling trade union movement began to organise a campaign for their release.
On 24th March 1834, over 10,000 people attended a Grand Meeting of the Working Classes, called by the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union.
A vast demonstration took place on 21st April 1834. Up to 100,000 people assembled in Copenhagen Fields near King’s Cross. An 800,000-strong petition was delivered to Parliament protesting about their sentence.
After three years, during which the trade union movement sustained the Martyrs’ families by collecting voluntary donations, the government relented and the men returned home with free pardons and as heroes.
In prison, one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, George Loveless, had scribbled some words: ‘We raise the watchword, liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!’
The lesson is that even in incredibly difficult conditions the most unjust laws can be defeated by organisation and mass mobilisation.
This year the Tolpuddle Martyrs annual festival, growing in popularity, took place in Dorset on 15, 16 and 17 July. The festival is a popular mix of political discussion and speeches, music, entertainment and the traditional procession of banners.
More at: http://www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/