This is an odd one, and not only because “martyrs” is surprisingly hard to spell. Having never heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs before, when Marcus first proposed going to this museum, I assumed they were Protestants burnt at the stake during the reign of Mary I, like the Oxford Martyrs, Lewes Martyrs, et al. Or at least hanged, or otherwise killed for their beliefs, as the term martyr usually implies. But no. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of men in the 19th century who were transported to Australia for the crime of swearing a secret oath, but allowed to come back to England after a couple years when the public outcry got to be too much.
I admit that when I first heard this story, I was probably offensively flippant about the whole thing…when you’re expecting people to have been killed brutally to have earned the title of martyr, somehow a brief spell in Australia doesn’t really compare (I may have said something to the effect of, “So they got a lovely free Australian holiday? Some martyrs!”). But, this is clearly something that the people of Tolpuddle take very seriously, even hosting a yearly festival and procession in their memory, so I was willing to see the museum to learn more.
Tolpuddle is a “blink and you’ll miss it” sized village, so I wasn’t expecting the museum to be particularly large either, and I was right. But it is free, so there we are. 95% of the museum simply consisted of posters on the wall, in the style of protest or trade union banners, with several touchscreens and only a small glass case in the centre for artefacts, of which very few were particularly interesting. However, the posters did contain a lot more information about the story of the martyrs, so at least I learned something.
Basically, in 1834, a group of villagers formed an early example of a trade union to protest their low wages (six shillings a week, which according to the chart on the museum’s wall, wouldn’t have even been enough to buy adequate food for their families, let alone pay rent or buy clothing). Though trade unions weren’t technically illegal, swearing secret oaths was, and that was what got the men in trouble when one of their fellow labourers sold them out. A “rigged trial” followed, and six men: George Loveless, James Brine, James Hammett, James Loveless, and Thomas and John Standfield (they were father and son), were sentenced to be transported to Australia for their “crime.” (The museum was real salty about Lord Melbourne and the Whigs.) Protests back in England ultimately forced the government to pardon them, although they took their time about it, and the pardon took a couple of years to reach Australia. The men eventually returned to England, and were given plots of land in Essex to make up for their ordeal, but most of them realised they no longer felt safe in England, and emigrated to Canada together, where George Loveless, the “ringleader,” wrote several books about the martyrs’ plight, which is why the story probably has stuck in the minds of villagers to this day.
As you might expect from all this, Tolpuddle is an unusually left-leaning village (which you wouldn’t think was the case in the 19th century, given what happened, but the earliest commemoration was in 1875, when the only martyr to remain in Tolpuddle was given an engraved watch), and the shop was essentially full of Labour-themed souvenirs, including Jeremy Corbyn mugs, a rather splendid (and expensive!) Tony Benn bowl, and some pretty cool t-shirts (though they were definitely walking the line between politics and straight-up propaganda. I could see those of a more conservative bent not feeling entirely comfortable here). The building the museum is housed in, as well as the surrounding cottages, were built in 1934 to commemorate the centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and were intended to house retired agricultural trade unionists (which may still be the case today; the website isn’t entirely clear on this).
There are apparently a few other related sites around the village, including the tree that the martyrs initially met under, creatively called the “Martyrs Tree” (you can get a t-shirt featuring it), and the grave of James Hammett, one of the martyrs, but we were in a bit of a rush, so didn’t stop to see them. While I still think the term “martyrs” is a bit, well, misleading (…or maybe just confusing?) in describing their experience (maybe they could be the Tolpuddle Six?), they were nonetheless extremely unfairly treated (transportation was definitely no picnic), as were many other working men and women throughout the 19th century (and beyond), and the publicity their case attracted played an important role in the shaping of British trade unions and the fight for workers’ rights. Though it is undoubtedly an interesting story, I could have just read it on the website, as the museum didn’t really contain any artefacts worth noting, other than the court (police?) book recording the names of the six and a physical description of each man. So it’s worth stopping in if you’re passing through the area anyway as we were, but I wouldn’t make a special trip for it unless you’re coming for the festival, which takes place in July, and seems to be a pretty big event. 1.5/5.