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The Tolpuddle labourers on their return to Britain, an illustration from Cleave’s Penny Gazette,  May 15th, 1838. Ⓒ TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University.

The Tolpuddle labourers on their return to Britain, an illustration from Cleave’s Penny Gazette,  May 15th, 1838. (TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University)

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

Few episodes in the history of the British Labour movement have been as mythologised as that in which six Dorset farm labourers were shipped to Australia for their trade union activities.

Six members of a Friendly Society of agricultural labourers in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle were convicted on March 17th, 1834 of administering secret illegal oaths and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. The men were shipped to Australia, but were granted a free pardon in 1836. Five of them returned to England two years later. The case of the Dorchester labourers, the name by which they were known to contemporaries, attracted national interest both at the time and later, as the trade union movement grew in size and importance. In 1894 Sidney and Beatrice Webb described the conviction of the Dorchester labourers as ‘the best-known episode of early Trade Union history’. Arthur Henderson unveiled a memorial arch at the Wesleyan chapel in Tolpuddle in 1912 to the men who were now sanctified as ‘the Tolpuddle martyrs’. The centenary of their conviction occasioned a flood of commemorations led by the TUC, which published a memorial volume edited by the trade union figurehead Walter Citrine, with contributions from the future Chancellor of the Exchequer Stafford Cripps, Harold Laski, G.D.H. Cole and Herbert Evatt. 

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