How will these resources help you?

The topic can be seen as ‘quaint’ by students (not helped by the comic aspects of the name Tolpuddle with younger age groups) and conjures up images of rustic caricatures of people in smocks chewing chaffs of wheat. Yet Tolpuddle is an example of important developments in 19th century crime and punishment. 

Introducing Tolpuddle and the Martyrs

Tolpuddle Martyrs

published by the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, (2020)

This is an excellent gateway into the topic. The website is accessible, colourful and interactive and includes all the vital details. It’s a great taking-off point into the more serious and nuanced aspects of the topic. You could ask students to explore the website and identify the page that they are most interested in, either as an individual or a group task, and (especially for groups) to develop the information into a short presentation. The website also has a dedicated page to help teachers teach about trade unionism (you will find this under the ‘Museum’ tab) which dovetails nicely with the next resource.

The contemporary experience

Six for the Tolpuddle Martyrs: The Epic Struggle for Justice and Freedom

by Alan Gallop, published by Pen and Sword History, (2017), 9781526712509

This is a fascinating re-examination of the Martyrs’ story and provides in-depth background and real insight into the contemporary experience. Including a wealth of historical images and modern photographs, it contextualises the topic and broadens the knowledge base in an easily accessible format. 

The connection with the trades unions

Remembering Tolpuddle: Rural History and Commemoration in the Inter-War Labour Movement

by Clare Griffiths, published by Oxford University Press in History Workshop Journal No.44, pp.144-69, (Autumn 1997)

This article describes the original adoption of the ‘classic’ narrative of the Martyrs by the British trades union movement in 1934 (the centenary of the event). You could use this article to demonstrate how an event in history can come to be characterised in a certain and partial way and how the lives of individuals who lived in the past can be manipulated for purposes in the present. This can spark lively discussion around other events that have experienced similar treatment (for example, the ‘Glorious’ Revolution, Dunkirk and the Gunpowder Plot) and, possibly with more advanced learners, you could attempt to debate how current events might be interpreted in the future.

Tolpuddle and the Combination Acts

The Tolpuddle Martyrs: the origins of trade unionism

by The Gazette Official Public Record, published by the Stationery Office

The Gazette is a very interesting source in its own right – it is the UK’s official public record and has been documenting history as it happens for 350 years. The page on the Martyrs is a fabulous resource – both a secondary and a primary source, it can be used interactively to access online copies of original sources such as the original Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 that were used to prosecute and convict the Martyrs. The resource allows students to learn about the topic in general and then to explore the links to examine the actual original legislation. For example, students can follow the link to issue 18039 and see the expression used to pass the Combination Acts, and then look at the official announcements above and below that (for instance, the exemption for clergymen from a tax on riding for one hour per day, and waivers on the import duty on Elephant Oil!).

Audiovisual clip

This World - Working conditions at the Rana Plaza

published by BBC, (2014)

This clip shows how poor working conditions still exist in today's reality, in contrast with the human rights obtained by British workers through events like the Tolpuddle Martyrs episode.

Further Materials

Revisiting Tolpuddle: a critique of the TUC narrative by Ian F Sprague, published by Yale University, (2012) Access this resource
The Tolpuddle Martyrs: The story of the Martyrs told through contemporary accounts, letters and documents, published by the Trades Union Congress, (2000), 9781850065029 Find this book
From ‘Dorchester Labourers’ to ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’: Celebrating Radicalism in the English Countryside by Clare Griffiths, edited by Q Outram and K Laybourn, published by Palgrave Macmillan, Cham., in Secular Martyrdom in Britain and Ireland, (2018), 9783319629056 Access this resource
David M. Holbrook is a retired secondary school History tutor and a current A-level examiner. 

Text © David M. Holbrook, 2021.