Issue date
22 Jul 2018

Every year at Tolpuddle, thousands come to honour the six men who led the formation of a union for farm workers, and who were arrested and convicted for taking a secret oath and transported into slavery. We celebrate how the early unions mobilised a campaign that brought them home.

But - especially in this year - 100 years since some women got the vote - it is right to honour the women of Tolpuddle. Not to patronise but to pay proper tribute to the role of women in this story.

Women bore the brunt of poverty and starvation wages

Just being a woman brought the joy and terror of childbirth. For example: Christian, Sarah and Betty - wives of James Loveless, the uncle of George, the leader of the Martyrs.

James married Christian and they must have been happy with their new baby, Betty. Christian was soon pregnant again but baby Mary died. Sarah gave birth again to another girl, also called Mary, but both mother and child died.

James married again to Sarah but their first child, James, died. Then a baby girl, Sarah, but both died in the process.

A few years later, James married Betty who gave birth to a son, James but he died. Another pregnancy and another son, James, but he too died. Then a baby girl, Jenny but she didn’t survive. Then another girl, Jenny but both mother and child died.

Of nine children only one lived to grow up.

This was the life experience for the women of Tolpuddle. And when their menfolk had their pay cut, it was the women who had to try to cope, to stretch out the merger earnings to feed the children.

When the six men were transported, the women would not have expected to ever see them again. The men got an all-exclusive trip to Australia; the women faced absolute destitution with no income. They appealed for Parish Relief but that was controlled by Squire Frampton, the very man who had their men arrested. He told them their men should have thought more about them when they paid subs to the union. Today’s benefits claimants face benefit sanctions.

Today we celebrate the campaign to free the Tolpuddle Martyrs but also the way the early unions raised money and used it to care for the families of the Martyrs - much to the fury of Frampton. The spirit of Tolpuddle is not just protest, but care, compassion and of course, unity.

The spirit of Tolpuddle is not just about protest, but care, compassion and of course, unity.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival comes at the start of the summer holidays. The date is not set to give teachers a long break or time for kids to play in the sun. It is harvest time, and women and children were expected to work the land. It would have been hard graft for the next few weeks.

Women joined the fight for better pay. In 1873 in the village of Ascott in Oxfordshire, farm workers went on strike for a pay rise. The farmer brought in strike breakers and sixteen women confronted the scabs who quickly scuttled away. The women were arrested and sentenced to seven to ten days hard labour. There were large protests and petitions. They won Free Pardons, although they came too late. But the incident led to changes in the law to allow unions to peacefully picket.

It was women who faced the hardship of evictions if their men were sacked. Tied housing wasn’t just the odd cottage on the farm. Employers bought up whole villages in order to bind the workers. They could be dismissed for minor infractions or for challenging safety. And especially for organising the union.

Joan Maynard MP
Joan Maynard MP, Country Standard (C)

Joan Maynard was a feisty left-winger who became vice-president of the National Union of Agricultural Workers. She fought against tied housing and when elected as MP for Sheffield, she took the cause to Parliament and won significant reforms. The bench in the corner of the museum lawns, made by a collective of Yorkshire carpenters, is in honour of Joan Maynard.

Seasonal farm work today is done by migrant labour. Of the 80,000 workforce, some 98% are migrants - almost half are women. Most are also tied to the job through accommodation.

Due to Brexit, the employers want a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme so the gangmasters can recruit outside of the EU, probably from countries where workers will be more ready to take poor pay and conditions.

In return for a new scheme, we must demand ways to protect workers from exploitation: proper advice on pay and rights for all workers, free access for unions to organise and bargain for them, and properly resourced enforcement bodies.

So - not just this year - but every year, let’s hear it for the women of Tolpuddle and the brave sisters who fought for our class.

Nigel Costley

Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival, July 2018