Tolpuddle Martyrs Labour Legacy

Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum Poster. Photo: Kaye Bewley

Imagine if you had the power to galvanise a whole nation to your defence. That’s what the boys from Tolpuddle managed – in 1834 no less!

We all work

We all want a decent wage. And, if we get to enjoy that work, all the better. But, back in the 1830s, working life was a whole lot different to what it is today. Today, you can browse through a museum that upholds the memories of brave men who made a difference to the working man’s life.

There’s a lot of talk this year about the Womens’ Right to Vote as 100 years ago, women were granted that right. However, though not distracting from that wonderful achievement, the basic rights of working people everywhere were influenced by a group of men who gathered together in the 1830s. You may be wondering what was so special about these lads.


Let’s go back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when there were no mobile phones, no televisions, not even any proper transport links. People got up very early in the morning and worked late into the night, without electricity, in the baking heat and freezing cold all to put food on the table for their families.

It can’t be denied, it was a hard life for the working man and woman. Those who worked on farms were getting a raw deal as their hours were lengthened and their wages were cut. Obviously, people got angry about the poverty they were experiencing through no fault of their own – as a result, they smashed up the machines they worked with and got sent to prison because of it.


However, back in 1833, things were hotting up for the farm workers. 1833 was a time when:

  • William IV was on the throne
  • Earl Grey was not just a cup of tea but the British Prime Minister
  • Britain sent the first of a flotilla of vessels to reassert sovereignty over the Falkland Islands
  • The Royal Horticultural Society held it’s first flower show
  • Charles Babbage met with Mary Somerville and put their heads together to invent the first ever computer.
  • Charles Dickens published his first work of fiction ‘Sketches by Boz’
  • The Factory Act, abolished children under the age of 9 from working in factories
  • The Slavery Abolition Act released all slaves from the British Empire

You get a general idea of the changing times?  It was during that time-frame that, in Dorset, a small group of farm workers formed one of the first Trade Unions.


Britain was undergoing many changes and improving the lot of the ordinary man, unions were considered lawful and becoming popular. However, the group of lads from Tolpuddle in Dorset, were arrested and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. Their crime? For taking an oath of secrecy.


Bearing in mind the limited communication abilities, lack of proper transport and an absolute dearth of electronics, that couldn’t stop the massive momentum that galvanised the protest which swept across the country.  Thousands of people went out of their way in an effort to march through London, organised petitions and protest meetings to demand the Tolpuddle lad’s their freedom and stop their transportation.

Each person who went on the march, travelled all the way down to London, either walked, got on horseback or sat on the back of a cart. There were no cars and carriages for the likes of the poor workers of the country. Imagine the tremendous effort they went to. An effort that meant something to everyone who worked for a wage.


The Unions we know today, have their foundation in the efforts of all those working people who stood by the #TolpuddleMartyrs. The Tolpuddle Martyrs formed ‘The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers’ and got sentenced to a Penal Colony because of it. Because the whole of #British society stood together for these lads, they gained much more than the right to work for a decent wage. They gained the unique gift of unity and honour amongst themselves.

Though some Unions still remain today, it was only 150 years later, that the backs of the #Unions were broken.

In honour of these men, a Festival is organised to take place every summer. In 2018, as it’s the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Right to Vote, the Festival is something extra special. 

Trumped Up Charge. Photo: Kaye Bewley

Details of the Festival

In 2018, for one weekend in July, the Tolpuddle Martyrs March began. 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote, this festival was a particularly interesting one. For 2019’s event, you can buy tickets from the Tolpuddle Festival website. In 2018, people were able to enjoy a music festival with Billy Bragg at the helm, personalised poetry from the locals and a wreath laying on the grave of, James Hammett, one of the Martyr’s resting places. It was a pretty packed event, so if you’re planning to go by car in 2019, you’ll need to get there early.  Please don’t leave your faithful hound in it!

Kaye Bewley

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