By Mark Osborn
The TUC-organised festival which celebrates a key struggle in the fight for trade union rights in Britain took place over the weekend of 14-15 July in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle.
In 1829 and 1830 low wages, appalling conditions and unemployment, bad winters and poor harvests fuelled a great explosion of working-class anger, resulting, in November 1830, in riots led by the mythical “Captain Swing”. Throughout England 600 rioters were imprisoned, 500 sentenced to transportation and 19 executed.
The six Tolpuddle Martyrs were all farm labourers, paid 9 shillings a week.
Their leader, George Loveless, decided to set up a Union in Tolpuddle to give the labourers bargaining strength. Sometime between 1831 and 1833, (the precise date is unclear) the workers of Tolpuddle started up a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers.
However the landowners were determined to smash any union organisation, and to put-down outbreaks of dissent.
In March 1834 six Tolpuddle men — James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, James Loveless, Thomas Standfield and his son, John Standfield — were arrested for unlawful assembly and charged with ‘administering unlawful oaths’.
The judge under pressure from the government sentenced George Loveless and his comrades to seven years transportation to a penal colony in Australia, as an example to others.
However the six men had became popular heroes, and a large protest movement formed.
In March 1836, the Government was forced to remit the sentences in the face of public pressure.
The Martyrs weekend of camping, music, drinking and politics in Tolpuddle is increasingly popular and this year featured Tony Benn, Billy Bragg, Mark Thomas. Many hundreds of workers marched behind union banners through the village.
For a socialist there is a striking contrast between the bravery of the Martyrs and some of the union leaders who line up to speak in their memory. The best way we can remember the Martyrs is to build a militant workers’ movement and fight against the anti-union legislation which still, 173 years after the Martyrs’ arrest, plagues our movement.
Again this year a group of AWL members attended. 70 copies of Solidarity were sold and the AWL helped raised hundreds of pounds for the No Sweat campaign.