As George Loveless was marched back to prison, his head shaven like a common criminal, his hands manacled together, he had the inspiration that was to change the course of British law. Along with five other agricultural workers from a Dorset village, he had just been sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia for swearing an illegal oath. The year was 1834, and with the bloody French revolution fresh in the minds of the British establishment, the men’s real crime was forming a trade union to protest against their meagre wages.
In his cell in Dorchester jail, in desperation, he wrote his “Song of Freedom” with its emotive and rousing chorus of “We raise the watchword, liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!”. The legend of the Tolpuddle Martyrs was born that day and, 175 years later, that legend is still celebrated by a festival and rally where it all began. Thousands of trade unionists from all over the country descend on Dorset to remember the sacrifices made by the Martyrs and to reinvigorate themselves for the year ahead.
Tony Benn, a speaker at this year’s rally, believes the campaign to free and pardon the Martyrs was the turning point from feudalism to capitalism and socialism, and the singer Billy Bragg, who is also appearing, credits the Martyrs with the birth of the trade union movement, giving us things that many of us take for granted today such as the right to take holidays, the weekend and eight-hour working days. It would have been easy for them to sit tight and grumble about their wages and conditions, but they knew doing nothing would get them nowhere. Thanks to them, we now have the right to join a trade union. And as in 1835, when hundreds of thousands of men and women took to the streets to demand the Martyrs’ release, workers around the world today are learning the strength that can come from speaking with one voice to demand a living wage, peace and social justice.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival, with music from Billy Bragg, Transglobal Underground and others, takes place in Dorset from 17 to 19 July. For more details, visit http://www.tuc.org.uk/tolpuddle
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