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A beginner’s guide to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival

If you plan on heading for this year’s Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, PETER FROST has some information for you

BRITAIN has given the world many valuable inventions. From Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope, Jethro Tull’s seed drill and John Harrison’s marine chronometer to Richard Trevithick’s steam engine and George Cayley’s first human-carrying heavier-than-air flying machine.

I could go on at some length with Michael Faraday’s electric motor, George Stephenson’s passenger railway, right up to John Logie Baird’s television until we reach Tommy Flower’s electronic programmable computer and Tim Berners-Lee’s world wide web.

But in the long battle for the advancement of the human condition none of them get near six Dorset farm workers who 185 years ago earned their place to be named among our country’s greatest inventors. They gave us, and the world, trade unions.

These working-class heroes were George Loveless, his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and Thomas’s son John.

Their invention cost them dear. They were charged with having taken an illegal oath. Found guilty, they were imprisoned and then transported.

In the 1830s, life in English villages like Tolpuddle was very hard and getting worse. Then, as now, austerity was the name of the game. Working people were seeing their standard of living fall.

News from across the Channel of the French Revolution had the ruling class trembling. Add to that the home-grown rebellion of Captain Swing, fresh in the minds of the British Establishment.

Just as today the rich and powerful fought back viciously. Landowners were determined to stamp out any form of organised protests.

In 1834, those brave farm workers in west Dorset formed a trade union. Their demand was about yet another pay cut, the third in as many years.

In Tolpuddle local squire and landowner James Frampton heard about the meetings under the sycamore on the village green and moved against the labour movement’s pioneers.

That sycamore tree — the Martyrs’ Sycamore — still stands in Tolpuddle.

Experts have aged the tree at over 320 years, meaning it was quite big when those first British trade union heroes met under it nearly two centuries ago.

For the heinous crime of forming a union the six leaders were arrested and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. The charge was for taking an oath of secrecy.

From his prison cell, George Loveless scribbled some words: “We raise the watchword, liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!” 

It is a message that still echoes around the world and inspires generations of people to fight against injustice and oppression.

Transportation to Australia was a brutal punishment. Many didn’t even survive the harsh voyage. If they did the rigours of slavery often took their fatal toll.

The working class took up the cause of the men of Tolpuddle. A massive demonstration marched through London and an 800,000-strong petition was delivered to Parliament protesting about their sentence. Eventually after three years the hard battle was won.

The Tolpuddle martyrs returned home in triumph. Once again they were free to meet and talk beneath the shade of that sycamore tree in the quiet Dorset village.

Every year in July, this year on the weekend of 19-21 July, thousands of people come to Tolpuddle to pay tribute to those brave men as well as to enjoy a weekend of political debate, family entertainment, stalls, comedy, music and a grand procession through the village. All the ingredients in fact that go to make up one of our greatest annual working-class celebrations. 

Like all good festivals you’ll need to buy wristbands to get into the various events and locations. Adult bands are £42, children between 5 and 15 £5, under-fives free. Day tickets are available at various prices. There is no entrance charge on the Sunday apart from £10 parking fee and bucket collection. 

If you are coming on Sunday get there early otherwise you may not be able to find a parking place. The festival camping car park is reserved on Sunday for disabled parking and will soon fill up. The road closure order for the big march is between 1-6pm. It is best to enter the village from the east — follow the festival signs. 

Once the march assembles for its 2pm start, no traffic will be allowed on the road until the procession is over and it is safe. The organisers try to keep the festival car parks open as late as possible and open them as soon after the march as they can but safety is top priority. Always follow directions from stewards.

Now for some of the more domestic arrangements. There is no doubt at all that the way to get the best from every minute of the festival is by camping on the official campsite. No caravans are allowed but smaller motorhomes and campers are.

There are hot showers and plenty of toilets on site and volunteers cook a mean breakfast for campers. Tents are £20, campervans £45 for the weekend. 

There are all kinds of entertainment from a radical film festival all weekend and music, comedy and kids’ stages. The award-winning Martyrs’ Museum will be open all weekend. Festival-goers will get a discount with their festival wristband.
Political speakers across the whole weekend include shadow education secretary Angela Rayner MP, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, TUC president Mark Serwotka, shadow labour minister Laura Pidcock MP, Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner, shadow minister for environment, food and rural affairs David Drew MP, TUC deputy general secretary Paul Nowak and Skeena Rathor of Extinction Rebellion.

Just like agricultural workers 185 years ago, prison officers are banned from taking industrial action and they plan a hike from Dorchester to Tolpuddle to make the case for the right to strike and highlight the dangerous working conditions in our prisons. 
Among the huge range of entertainers here is just a tiny taster list — Rob Johnson, Eddi Reader, Joe Solo, Elvis McGonagall, Pete Bentham and the Dinner Ladies join a huge range of others.

There will be a veritable market of stalls selling every kind of progressive literature, T-shirts, books and most major unions will have an information stall.

For the full and massive programme of bands, events, stand-up comics, theatre groups and exhibitions visit


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