Stepping out in Tolpuddle time
ONE of the biggest political demonstrations ever held in London took place 175 years ago,when an estimated 100,000 people gathered on Copenhagen Fields, Islington, to march to parliament, then on south of the river to a rally on Kennington Common, all to demand freedom for six Dorset farm labourers, transported to Australia as convicts because they had formed a trade union.
The Combination Acts forbidding unions had been repealed ten years previously, and in 1832 the first Reform Act tackled rotten boroughs and extended the vote to many people, though still not to property-less workers like the farm labourers. In the Dorset village of Tolpuddle, six men gathered and decided to form a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, vowing to stand together to try and improve their lot.
Their aim was ambitious - a wage of ten shillings (50p) a week, at a time when wages had been falling and when the usual pay for farm labourers was more like seven shillings. There was nothing illegal in what they were doing. But they had taken an oath to help each other and to keep their society's affairs hidden from the masters. A local landowner did get wind of it, however, and wrote to Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, urging that the men be prosecuted under the 1797 law against illegal oaths.
This had been passed during the French Revolutionary Wars, to deal with the Spithead naval mutiny and perhaps societies like the United Irishmen. It seems inappropriately heavy for a group of quiet farm workers who merely sought a living wage. But there had been previous unrest across rural southern England, and the landowners and farm employers were frightened. Class interests prevailed - the six were arrested and charged, eventually with Conspiracy, and sentenced to be transported.
The six were James Brine, James Hammet, George Loveless - who was a Methodist lay preacher, his son John Loveless, and brother in law Thomas Standfield, and the latter's son John Standfield. They were sentended to seven years. But such was the revulsion and public anger aroused by this cruel class justice that within two years they were released, except John Hammet who was freed in 1837.
The massive demonstration at Copenhagen Fields, uniting working people and democrats, from top-hatted respectable craft union members to the very poor, was a major part in this struggle, and all the more remarkable when we consider that those calling it had none of the modern means of communication we enjoy today, and many people could not even read. Nor did they have easy public transport to get them to the strting point, or bring them home. But 100,000 came, so it was said, and they bore a petition with twice that number of signatures at their procession's head.
Things have changed. Copenhagen Fields has gone as an open space, and last week when I joined a small crowd of people for a guided walk around "Radical Islington" as part of the 175th anniversary commemorations, first thing we saw, above the Mitre pub which bears the commemorative mural, was the 'For Sale' sign which means it may never serve another pint nor remain standing with its fine mural- there is no preservation order,sadly.
The economic crisis with all its crazy features - bankers bonuses and workers' pay cuts, repos, homelessness and unemployed builders, public money for "private finance initiatives' - shows what nonsense was talked by those politicians and hacks who told us we were becoming a "classless" society. All the more credit to the historically-minded local people and trade unionists who have organised this week's commemortive events in Kings Cross and Islington, to remind us who we are and how our predecessors united and struggled.. Fortunately, those of us joining the march tomorrow will not have to walk as far as our forebears managed in 1834!
Around the world, and here in Britain, trade unionists are still fighting for their rights and respect in the workplace, and in our time we have seen men jailed for "conspiracy" . Ricky Tomlinson and others are still fighting for justice for the Shrewsbury pickets. We still have to confront Thatcher's anti-union laws, which New Labour has clung to, hampering effective union work by outlawing solidarity sction.
So while patriotic fools and profiteers are exhorting to celebrate the mythical St.George, let us honour and celebrate six real English heroes, among them that other George, Loveless, who managed as he was being transported to penal servitude to pass on these words on a slip of paper:
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!
Events on 25 April:
The Big March
Meet at Caledonian Park and join the big march down Caledonian Road to Edward Square headed up by the Cuba Solidarity Salsa Band. Caledonian Park, Market Road, N7
25 April: TolpuddleKX goes live with Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, Leon Rosselson and Northern Celts. Performances by Caledonian Youth Project and Copenhagen School, the Cuba Solidarity Salsa Band, speakers, banner making, storytelling, Woodcraft Folk kids events, Kate Greenaway Nursery under 5s events. 2pm. Edward Square, Copenhagen Street/Caledonian Road, N1See also:
and on the Radical Islington walk (courtesy Marg Nicol)