I once lived in an old house in Greensted Green, Essex that had a plaque on the wall. “Here lived George Loveless and his family on his return from transportation to Australia 1837.” People often stopped by to look at the house.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were 6 farm labourers who lived in difficult times. In 1834 they formed an association to help each other and dared to question their pitiful wages. The authorities treated them harshly and arrested them for making unlawful oaths. At a trial in Dorchester, they were sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia.
But public opinion swung behind the men and mass protests and a petition brought them home 3 years later. This is often called the birth of the trade union movement. A fascinating part of English social history.
In 2002 Robert created a musical version of the story which he called From a Spark to a Flame, and it was first performed by Theatretrain at the Old Vic Theatre in London. We were then invited to the Annual Tolpuddle Festival and performed it in a large marquee.
It was a fantastic summer day. They provided coaches and we sang songs under the very tree where the men met. We were then taken to the old, preserved courthouse where they were tried and sentenced – even standing in the dock and the cells beneath. One of our students who played the part of George Loveless was able to sing his song in the courtroom. A student who is today a barrister.
At the end of the performance, I have never seen an audience with so many tears rolling down their cheeks. It was a passionate story, but these people understood the sacrifices that the Tolpuddle Martyrs had made in trying to make their world bearable and they paid a terrible price. The public had raised money to lease farms in Essex but they remained unwanted because of their perceived radical actions and they eventually emigrated to Canade.
Theatretrain returned to the Festival again in 2011 where again we had a fantastic reception. Something about the story endures. It may not be a widely known piece of history but it was one of times when things were never quite the same afterwards. I’m proud that we were able to bring the story to the stage.
Robert beautifully set the words written by George Loveless all those years ago and they still ring in my ears…
“We raise the watchword Liberty
We will, we will, we will be free!
We will, we will, we will be free!”