The July Tea@Two meeting of Crewkerne & District U3A remembered the Tolpuddle Martyrs with their guest speaker Rob Curtis, a Dorset Blue Badge Tourist Guide. Rob’s talk on the six agricultural labourers who were transported to Australia for setting up a Friendly Society and swearing an oath of silence in 1834, was well timed with the annual festival commemorating them, taking place from July 20th – 22nd this year. The action of the six men from West Dorset is one of the most important building blocks in the trade union movement.
Rob Curtis told U3A members: “At the time the six labourers met and formed a Friendly Society, their earnings of nine shillings a week were barely two thirds of basic living costs and farmers were threatening to cut the wages to six shillings a week, the equivalent of 30p in today’s money” The men refused to work unless they were paid 10 shillings a week. The authorities were fearful that their stand would spark civil unrest and they were arrested and kept in prison until their trial, in cells beneath Shire Hall Court in Dorchester, which has recently opened as a museum, after a £2.9 million renovation.
Although it was not unlawful in 1834 to form a trade union, the judge John Williams was keen to please the Whig government and the jury of 12 men, who were all farmers, took only five minutes of deliberation to find them guilty. They were each sentenced to seven years hard labour and transported. Following a public outcry, with thousands of protesters marching to Parliament and a petition signed by 800,000 people, the six men were pardoned after three years and returned to England. Every year a wreath is laid at the grave of one of the six Tolpuddle Martyrs, James Hammett, who is buried in the churchyard of the parish church.
The July meeting was the first monthly meeting hosted by new U3A chair Sheila Seymour and was attended by 100 members.