Tolpuddle is a small village in the Piddle Valley with a clutch of thatched cottages and a pretty little medieval church. The village was made famous by the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of local men whose activities in the early part of the 19th century directly led to the creation of what we now call the Trades Unions.

Under the leadership of local preacher, George Loveless, the men formed a 'Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers' in order that they might better protest against a gradual lowering of wages that was the result of creeping mechanisation and the introduction of the Enclosures Act, which allowed landowners to annexe vast tracts of land upon which peasants had depended for centuries to grow food and rear livestock. The resulting poverty was widespread and reached a climax in 1830 when riots led by the mythical Captain Swing ended with six hundred men in prison, five hundred transported and nineteen executed.

Church of St John the Evangelist - Tolpuddle
St John's Church

Against this backdrop of political unrest, George Loveless and his gang swore an oath that they would not work for less than ten shillings a day (the basic wage was seven and falling). Their subversive behaviour so unsettled local wealthy landowner, James Frampton, that he wrote to the Prime Minister, determined to suppress any kind of uprising that threatened his wealth and power base. The Prime Minister quickly had the men arrested and transported to Australia using an obscure law intended for members of the Navy, but public pressure was such that their sentence was shortly revoked by the new Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, and all but one of the men were freed.

Most of the group spent the latter part of their lives in London, Ontario, where there is a memorial engraved with the words of George Loveless. 'We have injured no man's reputation, character, person or property. We were writing to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children from utter degradation and starvation.'

Grave of James Hammett - Tolpuddle
James Hammett's grave

Back in Tolpuddle, a thatched 'Martyrs Seat' was erected in 1934 by a wealthy London draper called Sir Ernest Debenham, while the Trades Union Congress built six memorial cottages in their honour. A more recent sculpture, dating from 2001, sits in the Martyrs Museum, and the village plays host to an annual festival organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The festival, usually held in the third week of July, features parades, a memorial service and speeches and music from the likes of Tony Benn and Billy Bragg. A field adjacent to the museum offers camping space and a marquee housing the workers beer company bar and stalls. In keeping with the spirit of the original martyrs the festival is often attended not just by British Union Leaders but by union leaders from across the globe, especially places like Iraq and Columbia, where unions are difficult or dangerous to organise.

Other reminders of the martyrs are dotted around the small village, which has benefited from the recent construction of a by-pass. The local pub is called the Martyrs Inn and the village green and sycamore tree under which the men are said to have sworn their fateful oath, are owned and preserved by the National Trust as one of their smallest properties. The tree is the largest sycamore in Dorset and is thought to have stood on the same spot for more than three hundred years.