God is our guide! from field, from wave, From plough, from anvil, and from loom; We come, our country's rights to save, And speak a tyrant faction's doom: We raise the watch-word liberty; We will, we will,we will be free!After the amazing posts of the past few weeks--inspiration from movies, exotic family stories and the rest--I'm bringing us back down to earth with a solid thump.
Today's the anniversary of the day in 1834 when the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced to seven years transportation for daring to form a trade union. And, no, I didn't make that name up--it's a village in Dorset, about seven miles from Dorchester, which is justly proud of the Martyrs, whose sentencing, pardon and return (well, most of them returned) is considered the founding of the English trade union movement. There's a museum in the village dedicated to them and a yearly festival in their honor.
The irony of the Toldpuddle martyrs is that what they were doing--the formation of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers--wasn't even illegal at this date. The Combination Act had been repealed in 1825. And god knows they had a desperate need to protect themselves, bringing home a starvation wage of nine shillings a week in 1830, lowered over the next four years to seven shillings with a further reduction to six shillings in the future. The rapidly-growing organization stated they wanted ten shillings a week. Just to give you an idea of the extreme poverty of these laborers, it was estimated that the average rural household spent nine shillings a week on bread, the staple food of the working poor.
The nervous Whig gentry drew upon an obscure law of 1797 originally created to prevent mutiny in the navy, making the swearing of pledges of loyalty illegal, and the six men were brought to trial at the Dorchester Assizes. There they were sentenced to transportation, blatantly as an example to others, and became popular heroes.
In 1836, with the support of a new Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, and in response to public pressure, they were pardoned, and four of them returned to England. Only one of the six, James Hammett, went back to Tolpuddle, where he died in 1891. Three others emigrated to London, Ontario, where their descendants still live.
The tree pictured in the engraving above, and beneath which the first meeting of the Martyrs took place, still stands--according to a fascinating page of the National Trust site dedicated to historic trees, it's a sycamore that is over four hundred years old.
Extraordinarily, these men--or some of them--were literate. You can read their first hand accounts of their arrests, trial, and life in Australia at tolpuddlemartyrs.online-today.co.uk.
I find so much about the story heroic and touching, not the least of which is the power of words and language--the stanza at the beginning of the post was scribbled on a scrap of paper by George Loveless shortly after they were sentenced. I'm reminded of how much about Georgian-Regency England, beyond the glitter and fabulous clothes and elegance, was so heart-breaking and hard and pitiless.
I guess my rule when I'm writing is always to keep it in mind, if not on the actual page. How do you handle it? Does it worry you?
And I'm over at the Riskies today, or later today, talking about ... something possibly related to this. Or not.