It could have been a scene from any music festival across the land: a muddy field filled with sun-kissed revellers singing along infront of a stage. But unlike other festivals, Tolpuddle is organised by the Trades Union Congress, its headline acts are Billy Bragg and Tony Benn, and rather than singing along to the latest chart-topper, the crowd are belting out “The Red Flag”.
It is 176 years since six farm labourers from Tolpuddle were sentenced to be deported to Australia after attempting to form a union. Each year this tiny Dorset village nestled in the Piddle Valley commemorates its “martyrs”. Commemorations have been held in Tolpuddle for over a century, one of the earliest being in 1875 when James Hammett, the only one of the martyrs to return to the village, was presented with an engraved watch. The symbolic importance of Tolpuddle has always increased in dark times for the trade union movement, such as during the 1984-85 miners strike. Against a background of swingeing public sector cuts and a new government determined to “play tough” with the unions, this year’s festival was larger and more militant than ever. “These savage cuts will make unions more visible and more relevant,” says Nigel Costley, festival organiser and regional secretary of the South West TUC. “Although union members will be lost to redundancy, people will also look more to their union for support, advice and resistance.”
The resistance that the martyrs’ sentence generated was an early example of national mass mobilisation. The fact that Dorchester crown court was one of the first in the world to have a press gallery meant that news of the sentence in 1834 spread rapidly, sparking a massive demonstration marched through London. Over 800,000 people signed a petition to Parliament protesting about their sentence.
Costley insists the festival is not a history lesson or a just a stop on the heritage trail. “Tolpuddle isn’t a funeral march for dead comrades. It’s a celebration of what’s been acheived through struggle.”
“There an incredible feeling of warmth and genuine solidarity in Tolpuddle,” says stand-up poet, Elvis McGonagall, who is a regular performer at the festival. “And you don’t have to queue for the ale,” he adds, holding up a pint of Piddle, the local brew. The heady mix of sunshine, scrumpy and socialism is an intoxicating one. The festival this year climaxed with a moving procession through the village, complete with brass bands and a blanket of embroidered union banners. “In an age when socialism is a dirty word, when unions are demonised and a lot of people in New Labour think that the Tolpuddle Martyrs is a gastropub in Hoxton, Tolpuddle gives people a chance to recharge their idealistic batteries,” McGonagall said.
The 2010 Tolpuddle Festival ran from 15 – 18 July.