If your life depended on it, could you explain who the Tolpuddle Martyrs were? Perhaps in the recesses of your mind you remember a sleepy school history lesson which expounded the importance of this small group of men living in West Dorset in the 1830s. Any more info than that might be a stretch.
A new play aims to propel the legacy – and courage – of the Tolpuddle Martyrs onto the national conscience. We Will Be Free! is an ambitious two-hander, brought to the stage by Townsend Productions and now embarked on a country-wide tour. We talked to writer and actor Neil Gore but, before that, a potted history of one of the most important actions in British history. And who better to tell it than the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum:
‘In 1834, farm workers in West Dorset formed a trade union. Unions were lawful and growing fast but six leaders of the union were arrested and sentenced to seven years’ transportation for taking an oath of secrecy. A massive protest swept across the country. Thousands of people marched through London and many more organised petitions and protest meetings to demand their freedom.
The protest campaign proved successful and the Tolpuddle Martyrs returned home in triumph.
The Tolpuddle story is about how ordinary working people combined together to defend their families. The idea of solidarity as a basic human right is now an international demand.’
It’s stirring stuff. How will a small company manage to convey the powerful story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs? Northern Soul found out.
Northern Soul: Why did you decide on a play about the Tolpuddle Martyrs?
Neil Gore: It’s a human story, that’s the appeal. It’s a true story about grit, determination and fight. It’s the human condition. And it’s about how people look after themselves and fight against terrible conditions and treatment.
NS: Do you think the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is too little known?
NG: If people know it, it’s probably from a dry history lesson. But this was the beginnings of the trade union movement. To form a trade union was illegal until 1831. These ordinary farming labourers weren’t breaking any law when they formed a trade union. They just wanted more pay and better conditions so they were able to survive. But the local squire was friends with the Home Secretary and he saw to it that, if they were going to form a union, they were going to pay for it. The evidence wouldn’t stand up in any court but he got them on swearing an oath to keep things secret. He got them on mutiny. They were sent to Australia for seven years.
NS: What happened after they were sentenced?
NG: Thousands and thousands signed petitions. And eventually a technicality [saved them]. The Orange Order in Ireland had similar oaths so it went that [on the same grounds] most of the Orange Order should be transported. And the King’s brother was part of it. So they brought the Tolpuddle Martyrs home. But they were gone for up to four years. Transportation was awful. They were treated as bad if not worse than slaves. It was the worst abomination you could think of, hell on earth.
NS: Did they all come back?
NG: Yes, they did. Their story is extraordinary. But they had to be resettled, it was far too uncomfortable to be in Tolpuddle.
NS: What is their legacy?
NG: It was an event that drew people together and they realised that you can’t treat people like that any more, it was just barbarous. People were inspired to be part of a union by them.
NS: How is Townsend Productions going about putting on a play of the Tolpuddle Martyrs?
NG: We are small scale. We’re like a band gigging rather than a theatre touring. There are two people in the play and stylistically that suits what we do. It’s very uncluttered but we use theatrical tricks to get the message across…It’s very hard being a small company, really tough. But because of the work that we do we can go to trade unions and ask them if they are interested in funding us. They often are. They are quite happy to put their hands in their pockets but it’s bits and pieces that we get from them. We’re not talking about a lot of money.”
Interview by Helen Nugent
Where: Bury Met
When: February 11, 2014 and touring
More info: http://themet.biz/event/we+will+be+free%21/1823/, http://www.townsendproductions.org.uk/
For more information on the Tolpuddle Martyrs, try this link: www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk