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Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Friday, 16 July 2010 12:01 UK

Tolpuddle Martyrs in modern times

Ian Paul
Ian Paul
Editor, Politics Show South

Tolpuddle march
Iconic trade union moment

The Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival in Dorset is one of the highlights of the trade union year.

It commemorates six farm labourers who were transported to Australia in 1834 for the "crime" of forming a trade union.

Their sentence caused a surge in working class protest and was an iconic moment in trade union history.

The Festival this year could hardly come at a more pertinent moment in current trade unionism.

Historic grievance

The 1830's were a time of low wages, unemployment, bad winters and poor harvests.

Unsurprisingly, that led to unrest across the countryside, with an outbreak of arson, machine breaking and assaults across the south.

The six Tolpuddle Martyrs, led by George Loveless, decided to form a union to give themselves bargaining strength.

It was their oath of secrecy that gave the authorities, urged on by the local squire, the excuse to have them arrested, tried for administering an unlawful oath, and transported to Australia for seven years.

Mass meeting

The trade union movement then began a campaign for their release. A Grand Meeting of the Working Class in London in March 1834 was attended by 10,000 people.

A petition to the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, was signed by over 800,000 people from all over the country and presented following a march through London by 100,000.

Tolpuddle march
Modern unions on the march

It took two years of protests and pressure before the men were granted full and free pardons.

Things have moved on a fair way since the 1830's but, as trade unionists gather this weekend in the Dorset village, some will be asking whether the clock is starting to spool backwards.

Modern rumblings

Unions and employers are once again at loggerheads and the courts are again being brought into the disputes.

There is the threat of redundancies in the public sector, the economy is far from robust and unsettling change is everywhere.

A summer of discontent seems to be coming ever closer to the boil.

So in amongst all the banners and the speeches and the brass bands this weekend may be the ideal place to take the temperature of the trade union movement.

Join Peter Henley on The Politics Show South live at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival.

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