Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival finds new way to reach supporters in spite of pandemic cancellation

By James Moules


TO the disappointment of many long-time supporters, the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival was cancelled this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic – but the festival’s organisers have an alternate plan in store.

In 1834, six agricultural labourers at the English town of Tolpuddle in Dorset were sentenced for swearing a secret oath of support to a workers’ society.

After being transported to penal colonies in Australia, a public uproar at their mistreatment led to the six martyrs being brought home and pardoned. Their story is seen as a watershed moment in the history of Britain’s trade union movement.

An annual festival is held in Tolpuddle each year to commemorate their legacy.

But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s festival is among the many perennial events to be cancelled.

Nigel Costley, South West TUC Regional Secretary and the festival’s organiser, told Redaction Politics that while the cancellation was predictable, it still came as a crushing disappointment.

He said: “It is a great disappointment, not just for us, but for thousands of people who enjoy the camaraderie.

“We take it very seriously that it is a celebration. We are keeping alive the memory of the six who were transported and the mass protest that brought home those men.”

However, the organisers are lining up an alternate online event to celebrate the legacy of Tolpuddle in the absence of the usual festival.

On a normal year, thousands of people flock to rural Dorset each summer to attend the festival for live music, political debates and discussions, film screenings, speeches and the traditional procession through the town to lay a wreath at one of the Martyrs’ graves.

Instead, there will be an online event from July 17 to July 19. It is set to include virtual equivalents of the usual events – online events will include music, a Radical History School, a Radical Film Festival, a kids’ area and even a virtual procession.

The lineup of performers is yet to be confirmed. Musician and activist Billy Bragg is a regular at the festival and is expected to perform at the end of the Sunday line-up.

Mr Costley added that the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ and the history of the British trade union movement are just as important now as ever – especially with people facing precarious health and employment during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Guardian recently reported – that in the UK – the number of Jobcentre claimants soared by 126 per cent since the start of the nationwide lockdown in March.

Government figures also reveal that, between March 1 to June 16 of the year, the Department of Work and Pensions has seen an unprecedented 3.3 million declarations to Universal Credit.

Mr Costley said: “There are a lot of people who are concerned for their health and for their jobs. It is just reinforcing the message to rebuild the labour market and an economy that treats people better.”

He added that this year’s Tolpuddle Online Festival “will be a very ambitious event. I was a bit of a sceptic at first when we had to cancel the real thing, but I think we will do it justice.”

To keep an eye out for upcoming information on the festival, visit tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk

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Featured Image: Rwendland@WikimediaCommons

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