Monday, 28 September 2015

Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum - a timely reminder of Trade Union importance

Tolpuddle is a pretty village within walking distance of our current
Thompson Dagnall sculpture outside the Museum 
Puddletown campsite. If it weren't for a terrible misuse of power in the 1800s, Tolpuddle might be a mostly unknown agricultural community. However, the events of 1834 and their repercussions mean that the name Tolpuddle is still, nearly 200 years later, synonymous with workers' rights and triumph over abusive working practices. It is depressing that the Trade Union struggle for basic rights continues to this day and that our current Tory government seems intent on repeating the arrogant mistakes of their landed gentry forbears! Do you remember the SumOfUs petition I publicised in August about proposed Tory restrictions on British Trade Unions? 114,125 of us have signed at the time of writing and the petition is open for more!

In 1834, six Tolpuddle men 'clandestinely' grouped together, swearing an oath of allegiance, in order to present a united front demanding that their farm labourer wages be raised from starvation levels. The wage was about nine shillings a week and a breakdown within the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum illustrated very basic outgoings for a labourer's family to be about thirteen shillings a week. And this is still the era when a married woman was expected solely to look after the family home not having independent employment of her own. Although forming a trade union was legal at the time, the fledgling idea was not popular with the majority of landowners who preferred the theories that social class was static and poverty-stricken peasants should be grateful for any wage at all! Indeed, slavery across the British Empire had only been officially abolished the year before. A completely unconnected law was subverted regarding the Tolpuddle men's swearing of an oath and this was used to crush them.

George Loveless, his brother James Loveless, James Hammett, James
Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum 
Brine, Thomas Standfield and Thomas's son John Standfield were all arrested and sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. Massive public outrage eventually forced the men's return, but this took several years to achieve. The Museum details the harsh life endured by the men in the colonies and for weeks on disease-ridden prison ships before they were even deported. The display room is quite small but well presented with printed fabric banners hanging in chronological order. It was interesting that, despite the Tolpuddle Martyrs fame in the 1830s, the only original image was of James Hammett, and that was a photograph of him taken in old age when his story was rediscovered by the trade unions movement. Yet, all the 'villains' of the tale had been painted, some images even being from the National Portrait Gallery. Another glaring omission was information about what happened to the families while their men were under arrest and imprisoned.

I was moved by the story of the six Martyrs, especially because it is so relevant to our society today. (Please do consider adding your name to the SumOfUs petition if you have not already done so.) One of the Museum banners showed a book cover, The Victims of Whiggery: Being a Statement of the Persecutions Experienced by the Dorchester Labourers which was written by George Loveless after his release and before five of the six, with their families, decided upon emigration to Canada for the remainder of their lives. I definitely want to read this account! The Museum has an excellent gift shop with t-shirts, stationery, and an extensive selection of books. I didn't see any edition of Victims Of Whiggery though, but have learned that Cambridge University Press will be publishing it in June 2016. The title is already available to pre-order via Amazon (and, yes, I do appreciate the irony of linking to a company who aren't exactly at the forefront of promoting worker's rights!)

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