Around 10,000 people descended on the tiny Dorset village of Tolpuddle, near Dorchester, on Sunday for the annual festival to remember the 6 farm labourers who, in 1834, formed a union in an attempt to protect their falling wages. Photo report by Peter Arkell
Trade unionists paraded with banners and bands past the thatched cottages of the village to a meeting addressed by Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union, and others. A large delegation from Unison, the health workers union, was on the march, among them Suzy Franklin, a Unison representative from Derriford Hospital, the largest in Plymouth.
She said that her hospital was facing 281 job cuts, out of 5,000. Two wards were facing closure as well as part of the A & E department. “I think that double that number will go”, she said. She expressed surprise that the leadership of the Labour Party was unable to support the recent one-day strike by teachers and civil servants. “They just lose lots of support”.
The six farm workers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, were arrested at the behest of the local landowners and put on trial at the Dorchester Crown Court for swearing an illegal oath of solidarity, but the real reason behind their prosecution was fear on the part of the ruling class of the rising tide of anger and militancy of workers throughout the land. The Captain Swing riots had just swept across the whole of the southern half of Britain, Chartism was beginning to attracting hundreds of thousands of workers and unions were seen as a dangerous threat to the rich and privileged.
The 6 were sentenced to 7 years transportation to an Australian penal colony, but the government was forced to pardon them and bring them back after four years of demonstrations and protests throughout the country. Over 100,000 gathered at Copenhagen fields, just North of Kings Cross, in 1836 and marched to Parliament and on to Kennington Common. Several petitions signed by 800,000 people were delivered to Parliament.
While in prison one of the 6, George Loveless, scribbled the words: “We raise the watchword, liberty. We will, we will, we will be free”.About 60 prison officers, from the Dorchester branch of the POA, marched the 6 miles from Dorchester Prison on Sunday to join in the parade through Tollpuddle. In a law passed by parliament in 2008, prison officers are banned from taking strike action.
18 July 2011