Old Crown Court Opens To Celebrate The Tolpuddle Martyrs

By Helen Barrett | 19 July 2005
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Shows a photo of a courtroom with large arched windows

The court where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried has hardly changed over the years. Photo courtesy West Dorset District Council

Dorset is set to remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs as the scene of their 1834 trial and imprisonment opens for guided tours from July 18 2005 and, for the first time, the National Trust calculates the exact age of the landmark Tolpuddle Tree.

The Old Crown Courts and Cells at Dorchester are to open for tours with Blue Badge Guides throughout the summer until September 9 2005.

“The court and cells are fascinating because they have hardly changed through the centuries. Standing in the dimly lit cells, you start to understand how the prisoners must have felt,” said West Dorset District Council Chair Mary Penfold.

Shows a photo of a model of a male judge with a wig in a courtroom with the royal crest on the wall

The sentences handed out led to a huge public outcry. Photo courtesy West Dorset District Council

And in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle, National Trust forestry experts have used modern dating techniques to calculate that the sycamore tree - a place of pilgrimage for thousands of trade union supporters - started life in the 1680s, more than 150 years before the Martyrs met beneath its boughs in 1834.

“New calculations we’ve carried out have established that the tree is around 320 years old,” said Ray Hawes, head of forestry at the National Trust. “That means that it would already have been quite a large tree when the meeting that pioneered the modern trade union movement took place.”

The Tolpuddle Martyrs attempted to form one of the world’s first trade unions against a background of falling wages and harsh employment laws. At a time when farm labour associations were considered illegal, the six were arrested, tried and sentenced to seven years transportation to the penal colonies of New South Wales.

Shows a photo of an old tree

The Tolpuddle Martyrs met under this tree to plan their trade union. Phot courtesy National Trust

The sentences provoked a huge outcry, leading to their eventual pardoning and return to England. These key events formed the foundations of the struggle for fairer pay and working conditions in the 19th century, and eventually, the modern trade union movement.

Nigel Costley, Regional Secretary of the South West TUC, said: “The Tolpuddle Tree is one of the most famous trees in the country because it was under there that the Martyrs met – a move that led to their deportation, pardon and, ultimately, the foundation of the trade union movement.”

Dorchester’s Old Crown Court and Cells guided tours take place at the offices of West Dorset District Council, High West Street, Dorchester from July 18 to September 9 2005, Monday to Friday from 2pm - 4.15pm (excluding bank holidays) and on Wednesdays between 10am – 12.15pm. Admission is £2 for adults and free to children under 16.

More information on the National Trust’s work with ancient trees can be found at www.nationaltrust.org.uk

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