Martyrs

This is one of a series of posts exploring some of the more obscure parts of London and their past. Some of the photographs will appear in my 2022 calendar which will shortly be on sale. Click here for more information and check back to see when the calendar is available.


In 1833 six farm workers in the village of Tolpuddle, Dorset – James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, James Loveless, John Standfield and Thomas Standfield – seeing their wages plummet, formed a friendly society (a precursor to a trades union) so that they could combine together to protect their wages. Unions were no longer illegal at that date, although barely tolerated. The workers had sworn a secret oath and it was this that in 1834 was used to prosecute them under an obscure 18th century law, the Unlawful Oaths Act. They were sentenced to transportation.

We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!

A petition was raised to protest against the sentences and very soon it had 800,000 signatures. Tens of thousands set off from Copenhagen Fields near Kings Cross to present the petition to Parliament.

A little under twenty years later the sounds of Copenhagen Fields changes from the chants of protestors to that of the cries of livestock brought to the Metropolitan Cattle Market. The new market built as a supplement to the existing Smithfield Market further south was opened by Prince Albert in 1855. It included the clocktower and no fewer than five public houses, four of them on each corner of the site. Trade diminished and eventually the market closed in 1863. The space is now a public park with the clock tower taking pride of place.

A mural depicting the Tolpuddle Martyrs Rally is painted on a wall in a small park off Copenhagen Street, south of the Caledonian Park.

Each year a rally takes place in the village of Tolpuddle to celebrate the memory of the martyrs and trades unionism. It includes a procession through the village with trades union banners and marching bands. Wreaths are laid at the grave of the only martyr who returned to the village after their sentences were overturned. At the centre there is an old sycamore tree under which the farm workers are said to have met to discuss their plight. It still boasts new growth each year.

Published by Stephen Taylor

Freelance e-learning developer and instructional designer, photographer and cyclist

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