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The Tolpuddle Martyrs, Joseph Arch, the vote & allotments

In Uncategorized on July 19, 2017 by kmflett

The Tolpuddle Martyrs, Joseph Arch, the Vote and Allotments

The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs formation of a trade union to address low wages, their subsequent persecution and transportation and the campaign that was built around that is the stuff of labour movement history.

The wider picture of strategies to improve the conditions of the agricultural labourer, ‘Hodge’ as he was insulting known, are documented but not much analysed.

The Tolpuddle union was a relatively rare attempt to address rural distress, where in many other places riot and destruction of machinery, sometimes under the banner of Captain Swing, was preferred. Tolpuddle stands out because it was an effort at disciplined organisation of the kind that became familiar and in due course successful in the labour movement as it grew.

Yet if the campaign to bring the Tolpuddle men back to England met with success no real improvement was made in the conditions of Dorset farm workers.

A couple of generations had to go by before renewed efforts were made around the formation of the Agricultural Workers Union led by Joseph Arch in 1872 and 1873. These unions were often local and short lived, coming together to try and force a wage increase through pressure on employers or, where that failed, strikes. In Dorset there was activity to the east around Blandford.

Win, or mostly, lose the union membership usually fell away again after a short period.

This begged the question of what strategy could achieve more permanent change for the better.

Joseph Arch’s solution was the vote.

The 1867 Reform Act, 150 years ago this May, had widened the franchise for working men by almost a million. However it had done so primarily in urban Boroughs, leaving many agricultural workers still without the vote.

Arch, who associated himself with the Liberal Party, was a campaigner for what became the 1884 Reform Act. This widened the franchise much more considerably than in 1867, adding 1.7m voters, including numbers of agricultural workers.

For Arch himself the changes worked well. He was elected twice as a Liberal MP for a Norfolk seat where farm workers were a significant part of the electorate. However according to his entry in the Dictionary of Labour Biography he was not regarded as being an effective Parliamentary performer, his stump style, influenced by Methodism, not fitting well. He grew increasingly detached from the perspectives of those he was elected to represent.

In West Dorset certainly the strategy of winning the vote did not work particularly well. The constituency was formed as part of the 1884 reforms. In every election since then, beginning in 1885 to the one held in June 2017, it has elected a Tory MP. In that time there have been only six of them.

However the increase in the rural vote meant Parliament now had to address the land question.

The attraction of allotments to agricultural labourers stretched back to issues around the enclosure of common land and the schemes of the Chartist Land Company in the 1840s.

The demand which was raised by Arch had a more industrial focus. His view was that holding an allotment provided a degree of independence from the employer to the worker, as did, in other ways membership of a trade union.

The allotment was a fall back that allowed the labourer and their family to subsist in terms of unemployment or when on strike.
The matter was debated in Parliament leading eventually to the 1887 Allotment Act.

The irony was that Arch opposed the Act, speaking against it, not because it was without value to farm workers but because it was proposed by a Tory and he was a Liberal.

There were possibilities and limits to the Parliamentary route to changing things for the better.

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