I had the pleasure of attending the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival yesterday. Some thirty years ago I worked in Dorset, and as Chair of the local trades council, I helped to organise this event. I still cherish my numbered bottle of Martyrs Ale, brewed for the 150th anniversary event I was involved in.
I am pleased to say that the event is better supported than it has ever been - effectively the southern equivalent of the Durham Miners Gala. Extended to a weekend festival with many comrades camping in the village. The attendance of Jeremy Corbyn undoubtedly boosted numbers this weekend. His announcement that a new Labour government would reconstitute the Agricultural Wages Board was welcome and relevant.
The story of the Martyrs is unusual, not just because Dorset is not renown for its socialist heritage. In 1834, farm workers in west Dorset formed a trade union. Unions were lawful and growing fast, but six leaders of the union were arrested, after a complaint from a local landowner, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation for taking an oath of secrecy. This legislation was introduced to deal with mutiny during the Napoleonic Wars.
A massive protest swept across the country. Thousands of people marched through London and many more organised petitions and protest meetings to demand their freedom. All were pardoned in March 1836, with the support of Lord Russell who had recently become home secretary. They returned to England, although James Hammett was the only one of the six to die in the county. He is buried in the village churchyard.
The Martyrs also came from a Methodist tradition in the village, which is commemorated in the chapel.
Jeremy got a warm reception, both in the procession and during his speech.
It's only a short procession, but the numbers yesterday meant it took some time to organise.