The Tolpuddle Festival – 2015
As I prepare to drive off to Tolpuddle for the day, I wonder what the tone of things will be this year. The music and the entertainment will be enjoyable, but the politics will be very interesting with the background of a Labour leadership contest where the left-wing candidate is one of the front runners. I have done Tolpuddle with a Labour government in power, with a coalition government but never with a majority Conservative government in place. In my own neck of the woods we are already thinking about what the Churches need to do in response to cuts in benefits and greater austerity while also considering how to challenge any injustice that is happening. Can one equate the plight of the victims of benefits cuts today to the treatment of the Tolpuddle Six nearly 200 years ago?
The day itself is the usual mix of entertainment and challenge, with the religious bits being a part which more and more people are coming to appreciate. There is the laying of the wreath on the grave of James Hammett. There is the blessing of the parade from the stage, which I always assume nobody listens to. But I have a very nice conversation with someone who thanks me for what I have said, a Trade Unionist who highlighted our common values, values I had stressed, the values of the Martyrs, values instilled in them by the Methodist Church, and values the Churches still have today. I had mentioned the recent JPIT report “Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions”, which is about justice and fairness, values which the Trade Unions would claim for themselves as well.
Elsewhere the challenge came from the Trade Unionists and the politicians, the usual mixture of the pragmatic and the idealistic. The main political speaker was meant to be Angela Eagle, but she most apologetically was involved elsewhere in the small matter of leadership hustings, as a candidate for deputy leader of the Labour party. I did hear Nigel Costley, the local South-west TUC chief, relating with some passion the story of the Tolpuddle six, with due recognition of their Methodist heritage.
Since the last festival, there has been a major victory because the original Martyr’s chapel has been saved from oblivion. For many years the state of the original chapel had been bemoaned – used as a grain store and neglected by its owner until it was in very real danger of falling down. Earlier this year, after much patience and tact, the deal went through to complete the purchase and the emergency work to keep it standing was done. Yes, it would have fallen down.
The Chapel was mentioned from the stage. Steph Jenner, the Circuit Superintendent from Dorchester, joined me to let the people know. This, too, was welcome news, and there was a steady and enormously encouraging stream of visitors to the old chapel site – more than 350 “signing the book” by the end of the day.
The Chapel project is being supported by English Heritage and everyone else who matters, which emphasises the great historical and social significance of the building. It is planned to reopen it in October 2018, the 200th anniversary of its original opening. The very talented group of people overseeing the work are all residents of the village (with the exception of Steph Jenner) and are making sure the building is used in ways the village want – it won’t be a place of worship, as there is the new Chapel, but it won’t be just a museum either. We talked about it being “a place to pray, to meditate, to cogitate”, but probably far more.
The actions of the Tolpuddle six continue to inspire people today. Let’s face it, that’s why we’re all here. It led Simon Topping and his band of Pilgrims to walk from Stroud to Tolpuddle just to think about these men, what they did and why. My plans to tie up with Simon were thwarted, but you have read about it in these pages and it was heralded on the Sunday in Simon’s absence.
At the end of the day it is the Festival Service in the (new) chapel. The Revd Graham Hunter, an Anglican Priest and community organiser from Hoxton in London is the Preacher, perhaps to show that those values are not the exclusive domain of the Methodist Church. He talked about justice and equality in Civic Society, about how Community Organising is natural for the Trade Unions as it is for the Churches. We heard that the Church is not just about salvation, it is about understanding that our world is not yet as it should be. We need to work for the transformation of our world, not to seek to escape from it. We heard from Jeremiah that people of faith should be working towards integration, coalition, forming partnerships. It is about collaboration to “Seek the welfare of the City”.
After the Service, we agreed that the religious bits of the Festival – the Sunday in particular – seem to become much more accepted as a part of the mainstream every year. More people are comfortable with and accepting of our importance in all this, even if they don’t share our faith.
As a footnote, many of the most vociferous at Tolpuddle were firmly in the “Jeremy Corbyn for leader (of the Labour Party)” camp. Reading the paper later that evening, I come across an Editorial “if Jeremy Corbyn is the answer, Labour are asking the wrong question.” Isn’t Politics fascinating. Just shows that we, of any party or religious affiliation or of none, need that old Chapel space to “pray, meditate, cogitate”.
Contact David Wrighton, Team Leader, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org