Commemorating the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’: a trade union origin story in brick and stone

There can be few visitors to Tolpuddle over the past twenty years who have resisted the temptation to sit on the bench that forms part of sculptor Thompson Dagnall’s statue the ‘Tolpuddle Six’. Unveiled in 2002 and depicting an anguished George Loveless awaiting transportation to Australia, the work, carved from local Portland stone, has proved a popular addition to the small circuit of sites in the village commemorating the events of 1834.

The Tolpuddle Six statue, and behind it the memorial cottages.

The statue sits immediately in front of an earlier attempt to create a permanent memorial to the six, the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs Memorial Cottages’ – a row of six cottages, set some 70 feet back from the main road and flanking what is now a small museum. Built at the instigation of the TUC and intended to provide a ‘comfortable carefree home’ for retired agricultural worker trade unionists, the first residents moved in during 1934 – when the trade union movement gathered in the small Dorset village to mark the centenary of the six men’s trial and transportation, and in the same year that the TUC held its annual congress in nearby Weymouth.

Centenary booklet. Click for larger image.

A centenary booklet published by the TUC, and sent to press some time before construction work was complete, explains that the cottages were being built on two storeys, but were designed ‘for elderly people who want as little stair climbing as possible’, so that the main accommodation was on the ground floor, with a staircase of ‘easy gradient’ to the second storey with its spare bedroom, store room and bathroom.

‘The downstairs bedroom averages in these cottages 9ft by 11ft. The living room is 16ft 6 inches by 11ft; the scullery extends 7ft by 8ft 8 inches. There is therefore more than space to swing a cat,’ as the booklet says. In addition the cottages were to be centrally heated and lit by electricity, with an electric oven and plug sockets for vacuum cleaner, electric iron, wireless set and other equipment. ‘The boon of hot water is available all over the house.’ There was to be running water (then by no means a given) and the cottages were to have ‘their own system of sanitation on up-to-date lines’.

Construction under way, 1934. From the centenary booklet. Click for larger image.

At the time, it was envisaged that the ‘good-sized hall’ standing at the centre of the six cottages might be used as a common room for conversations and games. The booklet suggested that in future, a library might develop here, ‘where perhaps a trade union branch can meet.’ It concluded: ‘When they [the cottages] are completed and in full occupation they will constitute, not only a worthy memorial to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but a model in rural housing, and a centre of comfort and happiness for those who are chosen to live in them.’

How the cottages were envisaged. From the centenary booklet. Click for larger image.

Though a museum now occupies the central hall, the cottages themselves are still occupied and run as a charity, fulfilling their original purpose. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady is one of three trustees.

Entrance to the museum.

Today, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their activities are probably the best known chapter in the origin story of trade unionism. However, the myth-making surrounding that story – and in particular the use of the word ‘martyrs’ to describe the six men – is not universally popular with historians. The wording probably dates at least to 1912 (when it was carved on the commemorative archway at the front of the former Methodist chapel), but the labour historian Tom Scriven notes that the label ‘was barely used at all until the 1930s, when the Trades Union Council commemorated the centenary of their arrest’.

Scriven argues that describing the men as martyrs wrongly presents them as ‘political quietists’, stripping them of their militancy, organisational acumen and politics. And he concludes: ‘These men and women were in no way apolitical and bewildered victims, saved by industrial workers. Instead, in the words of Loveless, they had resolved that “nothing will be done to relieve the distress of the working classes, unless they take it into their own hands”, and went on to do precisely that.’

Further information

The Tolpuddle Martyrs website provides information on the museum, visitors’ trail, festival and more, and is a good starting point if you are planning a visit.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs tree, a sycamore more than 300 years old where the men were supposed to have met, is in the care of the National Trust.

Shirehall Courthouse Museum in Dorchester includes a reconstruction of the court and cells as they were in 1834.

Tolpuddle Old Chapel Trust is working to repair and renovate the former Methodist chapel in the village in which at least four of the six men were actively involved.

The annual Tolpuddle Festival returns as an in-person event in 2022 after a two-year break and move online. It takes place on 15-17 July.

Martyrdom, misrepresentation and the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ by Tom Scriven is available on the History Workshop website. It was published online in 2019 and is based on his 2016 article for History Workshop Journal.