chapter  17
17 Pages

Tolpuddle, Burston and Levellers: the making of radical and national heritages at English labour movement festivals: Hilda Kean


Every July the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ festival is celebrated at a small Dorset village near Dorchester. Thousands of trade unionists regularly converge on the village to commemorate the six local agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle who were deported to New South Wales and Tasmania in the Spring of 1834. The men had been seeking to form a union to resist a reduction in their weekly wages. They had not taken part in strike action. Nor had they participated in the so-called Captain Swing riots in agricultural areas in the early 1830s in which, as Hobsbawm and Rudé have calculated, some 252 were sentenced to death,19 actually executed and 505 sentenced to deportation and 644 imprisoned (Hobsbawm and Rudé 1973: 224). Since the Combination Acts outlawing unions had been rescinded the agricultural labourers had broken no law in forming a union. However, they were convicted of swearing an oath, reputedly under the village sycamore tree, as part of the proceedings of a friendly society. They were prosecuted under the Mutiny Act of 1797 passed to prevent sedition, although, as John Rule has noted, ‘there was no question of the six having any such intent’ (Rule 1986: 311). In March 1834, a London meeting of some 10,000 people was organised by the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. It also subsequently organised a demonstration for their release, not in Dorset, but in London, at Islington’s Copenhagen Fields on 21 April 1834. As a result of various campaigns the six men received a free pardon in 1836: George Loveless returned to London in June 1837 and the others to Plymouth on March 17th 1838, some four years after the trial. On Easter Monday 1838 a procession was held to welcome their return, again in London (TUC 1934). A July date plays no part in the chronology of events, yet this is when the

festival is held. It is the moment of defeat that is the focus. The place where this act of remembrance is performed is not the place of labour movement strength in London where demonstrations were held for their pardon, but weakness, Tolpuddle.1