Tolpuddle march grows in face of new union threats

Thousands of trades unionists and their families descended on the tiny Dorset village of Tolpuddle last weekend to celebrate the lives of the six famous farmworkers from the village.

Photo report by Peter Arkell

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia in 1834 for administering a secret oath amongst themsleves as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. An early form of a trade union, the Society was in fact legal, but in the eyes of the local landowners and of Squire James Frampton in particular, their real crime was to have formed a trade union to protest about their meagre pay of 6 shillings a week and to resist it being reduced even further.

With the Swing Rebellion fresh in their minds the ruling classes were determined to stamp out any form of organised labour or sedition as they called it. Spies were employed to get information about the six and the local landowners even sought the advice of Lord Melbourne the Home Secretary in London. The martyrs were given a sentence of 7 years.

Transportation to Australia was brutal, and few ever returned from such a sentence as the long harsh voyage in hulks and the rigours of slavery took their toll.  But after the sentence, the working class rose up in support of the martyrs. An 800,000-strong petition was handed in to Parliament and a huge demonstration marched through London. The trade union movement sustained the families of the men with voluntary donations, and after three years, the government relented and the men returned home with free pardons as heroes.

TolpuddleDescendants of James Frampton who had 8 children and who was the only one of the six to return back to Tolpuddle lay a wreath at his grave.  He is thought to have substituted himself as one of the martyrs for his brother who had only recently got married.

The turn-out at the annual festival this year was considerably larger than usual, as trade unionists responded to the new planned attacks on the movement by the Tory government. All the big unions, Unite, Unison, GMB, RMT, NUT, NASWT, ASLEF had large delegations, led in many cases by bands. And there were many other smaller delegations.

Frances O`Grady (4th from left) leading the march past the thatched cottages of Tollpuddle

Frances O`Grady, general secretary of the TUC, who led the march through the village and past the thatched cottages, warned at the meeting afterwards that the government`s new Trade Union Bill risked creating a new generation of Tolpuddle Martyrs. "The Bill is a modern day masterclass in punishing people for daring to stand up for their rights ", she said.

"This government is determined to ... give bosses the upper hand during disputes. Even when ballots succeed in meeting the new thresholds, employers will soon be able to bring in agency staff to break strikes. These plans go much further than thresholds. Workplace training, safety, support for millions of workers could be hit by unlimited powers for the govenment to cap time spent on union activity. This could even stop a union representative supporting you at a tribunal if you`re the victim of harassment or discrimination.

"The latest attack on working people ... is an affront to the British sense of fair play and is a huge threat to civil liberties. This weekend at Tolpuddle, as we celebrate the six courageous workers who stood together against the Squire, we will also be sending a strong message to the government that this generation of working people are just as determined to defend our democratic rights".

23 July 2015


Jeremy Corbyn at Tolpuddle Tolpuddle

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