Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
23 July 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

Sun, scrumpy and socialism

This year's Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival was more militant than ever.

By Stefan Simanowitz

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.”

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

“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.