Friday, 22 July 2011

What links the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Brian Coleman?

Old Methodist chapel, Tolpuddle, Dorset

After my very pleasant stay at the Sandbanks Hotel last week I enjoyed a day-trip to Studland Beach, run by the National Trust, then a walk to less idyllic but nevertheless interesting Bournemouth.

Then I headed inland to the village of Tolpuddle for the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival. This enjoyable annual event commemorates an important early date in the history of British and world trade unionism: the transportation to Australia in 1834 of six agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle, Dorset for the "crime" of organising a union. The protest against their treatment was so great that the "Tolpuddle Martrys" were brought back to England in 1836/7. You can read more about these events on the website of the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Museum.

My friend and I broke away from the music and the cider for an hour to visit some of the landmarks of the martrys' lives in this tiny village, including the sycamore tree under which they plotted to form their union, and the Methodist chapel they attended (picture above).

I've read enough of E P Thompson's great book The Making of the English Working Class to know that Methodism became one of the non-conformist creeds that warned the working class off rebellion, but in villages like Tolpuddle there is a clear distinction between the established church, that upheld the traditional hierarchy, and the tiny chapel (of whatever denomination) that attracted the lower classes. In Tolpuddle Methodism was the religion of the rebels.

It makes me laugh, then, to see Barnet councillor Brian Coleman associated with the Methodist Church. He must sometimes wish he belonged to a posher church, don't you think? Still he's done alright out of it: a two-bedroom flat at a below-market rate. Which would all be perfectly alright if he weren't preaching the virtues of the free market to everyone else! Practise what you preach, Coleman, and people might take you more seriously.

1 comment:

Mrs Angry said...

Well said. The history of the early trade union movement is deeply rooted in the Methodist church, the small Methodist chapels which sprung up for example in the mining areas of the North East and Cornwall. In Durham particularly, miners would never have been able to organise and educate themselves without the support of the Methodist movement. It was not the faith of choice of most aspirational capitalists: far too earthy, and too close to the spirit of Christianity itself - radical and challenging the social structure. Coleman you would expect to be more high church anglican, if anything.