The real legacy of the Tolpuddle Martyrs: the organised labour movement

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2017 by kmflett

The real legacy of the Tolpuddle Martyrs

In their book on rural protest in the 1830s, Captain Swing, Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude, make the point that the Tolpuddle Martyrs appear to have been the only case where rural poverty and bad working conditions led to the organisation of a trade union.

Agricultural trade unionism did not appear in a significant sense until the 1870s under the leadership of Joseph Arch. Certainly the Martyrs had some longer-term influence on that development.  Arch referenced the case of the Tolpuddle Men when at rallies to organise the union. However given the fate of the Martyrs it might be argued that it’s not surprising no one followed their example.

However just because there was no upsurge in trade union organisation did not mean that there was no activity. This is what Captain Swing details. In that sense the penalty for fire raising, destruction of machinery or riot, could be more severe than the Martyrs received, not transportation but death.

There is another way of making sense of this and it lies with an analysis developed by the US social movement theorist Charles Tilly which is based on ‘repertoires of contention’.

The point made by Tilly, who studied forms and methods of radical and working-class protest in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, is that the union formed by the Martyrs was part of a wider change in the way that people contended with authority about the conditions they found in their daily lives.

Tilly’s thesis is that the way people protested in 1780 had almost completely changed by fifty to sixty years later.

In the case of the Martyrs, there was a very large, trade union focused demonstration in London in 1834 that sought to petition the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne to release the Tolpuddle men. As with Peterloo 15 years earlier the authorities exhibited extreme concern..

The issue was not large numbers of people gathering together as such. After all this happened at fairs and festivals, as it does now. Rather the concern was that the gathering had a political purpose.

Tilly notes the Whigs (Liberals) of the day were prepared to concede that workers organising in a trade union to protect their interests was acceptable. However they did not like the idea that this organisation should actually promote worker’s rights- that was political. Hence with the Martyrs case, these same bourgeois politicians believed that trade unions should be lawful, so the sentence was inappropriate, but did not like the idea of the matter becoming ‘politicised’ around the defence of trade union rights in general.

The defence campaign for the Martyrs pushed at the boundaries of what was and what was not considered acceptable protest.

As might be expected the large London demonstration passed off peacefully, despite fly-posted Government warnings about it.

There was further criticism that funerals of trade union activists who had died which were usually accompanied by a procession of their workmates, were hearing speakers supporting the Martyrs case.

The issue here, again, was not the funeral procession but the fact that it had become, as bourgeois critics saw it, politicised.

It was part of a change that saw contention move from street protests, riots and in the countryside the burning or damaging of machinery and crops, to the more organised and disciplined forms of protest that remain familiar to us today.

That meant the large well organised, and disciplined trade union march. It meant the well-publicised and structured public meeting and it meant, from the formation of the National Charter Association in 1841, a working class political party with membership cards and meetings.

This was the real legacy of the Martyrs.


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