On Dorset V (of XIII)

Spirit of revolt

Now just anarchist cartoons

Sprayed in seaside town

n.b. The graffiti reads

“…you won’t fool the children of revolution” This is a chorus line from a song by Marc Bolan, who sang in his band T Rex.

Dorset is the home of organised labour in the United Kingdom. Each July the Tolpuddle Martyrs are remembered during a festival that centres on the sycamore tree under which local farm workers met to discuss how to organise themselves to challenge the exploitative nature of their employers.

Landworkers’ rights in 1834 were still based on the feudal system that had been in place in Wessex under Saxon lords, before the viscious Norman invasion of 1066 CE.

In the early 19th Century many West Country workers were heading for the newly established industrial towns of the West Midlands that offered year round employment. Seasonal work on the land with accommodation commonly provided on a tied basis was tough to break out from and machinery was being introduced that replaced workers and increased profits. Wages for farm workers were being cut year on year.

Those workers who stayed on the land had been pushed to the point of desperation by landowners. Punishments for dissent were harsh and included the threat of execution.

The landed people of Dorsetshire, with its landlords holding sway, setting the laws as Members of Parliament (only landowners voted) and enforcing laws in the courts as voluntary magistrates, (an unpaid position open to local men of status), were not willing to accept challenge.

The tone of landowners was set in part by King William VI who had spoken against the abolition of slavery in the House of Lords, with the argument that enslaved people of the Caribbean islands lived in better conditions than free Scotsmen and women of the Western Isles, i.e. vassalage was for the greater good.

Fear of revolt by the common people following years of conflict with revolutionary France (from 1789 and officially from 1793) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803 to 1815) and the 1830 Swing Rebellion (in which threshing machines had been trashed by farmworkers and attacks had been made on landlords in Kent and throughout East Anglia), meant the southern counties were heavily mlitarised.

The Royal Navy had a base in Portland, the army had a large garrison in the county town of Dorchester. The Revenue men patrolled the coastlines to try and combat smuggling to try and enforce tarrifs on imported alcohol and other luxuries. Over 1,200 items were placed under tarrifs at this time.

Any hint of the mass of population organising to ask for “more” of the little they were allowed, (as Oliver Twist would dare do in Charles Dickens’ novel of 1837), was quickly jumped on and severly punished. At Tolpuddle the putative Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers were rounded up and transported to Australia. They were discussing what to do following a third pay cut in three years.

Following uproar at the severity of this punishment, a pardon was granted in 1837 and the men eventually returned home in 1839. There had been a petition of 800,000 signatures and a protest march in London. Donations sustained the bereft families, whilst the sentence of penal servitude (slavery) was imposed on the men. By trying to squash these voices, the people rose up.

This is far removed from a pathetic bit of spray paint on a wall in the seaside resort of Weymouth in post-Thatcher England, but good to see that the idea of revolution is not yet dead, (although of course Brexiteers pretend that they are revolting against European oppression, whilst voting for Christmas like chlorinated turkeys).

CLP 16/07/2019