History of the Festival
History of the festival
Tolpuddle has been a place of great importance to the Labour Movement from the moment news broke of the harsh sentences imposed on the six farm workers who led the formation of the union.
One of the earliest organised commemorations was in 1875 when the Agricultural Workers Union presented an engraved watch and illuminated address to James Hammett, the only one of the six Martyrs to return to Tolpuddle.
In April 1908 a meeting of theTolpuddle Martyrs' Memorial Scheme Committee agreed to launch an appeal for a pamphlet to tell the story with the aim of erecting some sort of memorial in the village. In 1912 a memorial arch was unveiled outside the Methodist Chapel in Tolpuddle by Arthur Henderson, the Labour Leader.
In 1922 the Working Women’s Club Fete and the National Union of Agricultural Workers held a joint festival. In 1925 a party of ASLEF railway workers stopped in Tolpuddle to pay silent tribute at the arch. Other individuals visited the village including Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald on his way back from Cornwall in 1933.
In 1834, Lloyd George, leader of the Liberals, came to lay a wreath and praise the role of trade unions.
Centenary year: 1934
In 1934, the centenary year of the arrest, the TUC celebrated in style. Unions paid a farthing a member for two years to establish the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Memorial Trust – a charity to pay for the commemorations and retirement cottages.
A book was published with contributors including TUC General Secretary Walter Citrine, Sir Stafford Cripps MP, Harold Laski, the Labour Leader, Arthur Henderson, GDH Cole, Sidney and Beartice Webb and George Bernard Shaw.
Six cottages were built to house the ‘aged and poor’. Electricity was brought to the village and a new well dug. A massive crowd came to witness the opening of the cottages.
The 1934 book of the Tolpuddle Martyrs published by the TUC
The cottages are opened in 1934 Memorial Cottages
A play was performed, a medal struck, a headstone designed by sculpture Eric Gill unveiled and a thatched shelter was erected next to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Tree.
A lavish gala festival was held involving a range of activities such as sporting, writing and brass band competitions. A grand procession and pageant were held in nearby Dorchester.
Part of the huge procession in Dorchester in 1934
George Lansbury unveils the new James Hammett headstone made by Eric Gill in 1934
See Pathe News coverage of the event here
After the war the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Rally reflected trade union confidence but in the 1950s some Labour leaders stayed away because of the involvement of Communist Party members.
150 years on
The 1984 Rally marked 150 years since the Martyrs were arrested and transported. Margaret Thatcher had declared war on unions and thousands turned out to show their determination not to be beaten. The sacked trade unionists from GCHQ were there as were striking miners.
The 7:84 Theatre Company put on the play Six Men of Dorset, an exhibition was held in London and a first day cover issued.
150th anniversary exhibition
Neil Kinnock speaks to the 150th Anniversary Rally in 1984.
A new tree is planted in 1984 with Oliver Trevett, Rod Todd, Alan Sapper, Moss Evans, Neil Kinnock and Norman Willis.
Festival gets new life
By the 1990s the format of a procession and speeches lost its appeal and attendance fell. In 1997 Nigel Costley the new South West TUC Regional Secretary, with the help of Dick Muskett from the Workers Beer Company began to revive the event with more music, diverse speakers and entertainment. The mix proved popular and attendance stared to build.
With the use of the neighbouring field, camping was introduced and people could come for the whole weekend.
Billy Bragg plays in 2009
The late Harold Smith was a great champion for the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival. His file full of letters and fliers was passed to the Marx Memorial Library who kindly dontaed the materials to the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Museum.
Britain at Work 1945-1995
See the new union history website here