‘Farewell to convicts’: the long life of a classic trade union image

The medallion shown here was awarded by the TUC for ‘organising services’, as the text on the clasp makes clear.

TUC medallion awarded for the recruitment of 20 new trade union members. Click for larger image

The ‘farewell to the convicts’ design had been commissioned by the TUC for a commemorative badge issued to all delegates to the 1934 Congress, marking the centenary of the Toldpuddle Martyrs’ arrest and transportation to Australia. It depicts a sailing ship under a night sky featuring the Southern Cross constellation. The man’s wrists are shackled – he was one of the Dorset labourers.

The design was, however, to be put to other uses, with the TUC’s organising committee keen to adapt it as a way of recognising individual trade unionists’ efforts to help the movement grow. The TUC’s annual report for 1934 notes that the General Council had written to affiliated unions in February of that year announcing the reissue of its award badge for recruiting ten or more members. ‘The badge this year has been linked up to the Dorsetshire Labourers’ Centenary Commemorations by adapting the prize winning medallion to badge form and issuing it in attractive coloured enamels.’

The award was clearly well received. The TUC Report of 1935 notes that the initiative had been extended by the General Council during the previous year ‘by instituting a bronze medallion for the recruitment of twenty new members, and a very handsome signed diploma for the recruitment of 40 new members’. With no sign of coloured enamels, but a strong suggestion of bronze beneath the now darkened metal, this would appear to have been one of the medallions awarded for the recruitment of twenty members.

TUC Congress badge for 1984,. Click for larger image

In that first year, the TUC had issued 3,741 awards (the basic badge), 378 medallions (the version shown above), and 115 diplomas. The scheme continued into 1936 when ‘similar’ badges, medallions and certificates were issued: 5,502 badges for recruiting ten members; 1,296 medallions for recruiting twenty members; and 496 diplomas for recruiting forty or more new members.

The ‘farewell to the convicts’ design has continued to be popular. In 1984, when for the first time in decades the TUC broke with a standard design for that year’s Congress badge to mark the 150th anniversary of the Tolpuddle labourers’ arrest, it turned once again to the image it had commissioned half a century earlier.

Modern Tolpuddle labourers commemorative badge. Click for larger image

The design has proved to be an enduring one, and it continues to be used today for commemorative items such as the badge depicted here.

TUC reports dating back to the organisation’s foundation in 1868 can be found on The Union Makes Us Strong website along with a great deal of other digitised material from the TUC Library Collections. The TUC Library was set up in 1922, and is celebrating its centenary this year.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival is set to return this year, running from 15-17 July 2022