Local History

The Milborne Martyrs | Looking back

This historic picture, dating from April 1874, provides a rare photographic glimpse of the agricultural turmoil and early trade unionism that played such a big part in Dorset’s nineteenth century history.

It was taken at Milborne St Andrew, just a few miles from Tolpuddle, whose Martyrs were famously transported to Australia forty years earlier for swearing an oath of loyalty.

The picture shows about 100 villagers gathered to watch the ‘evictions of agricultural labourers, members of the union’, from their tied cottages.

Milborne St Andrew was home to the first Dorset branch of the Agricultural Workers’ Union, formed two years earlier, and its members were striking for more money.

Contemporary newspaper reports tell of Milborne St Andrew families being ‘forcibly ejected’ in 1874 and ‘their goods and chattels put into the road’.

‘As there is a general strike of labourers in the village, there was a good muster of men, women and children, attracted thither by the “novel and interesting” spectacle,’ reported the Dorset Free Press.

An eyewitness said: ‘I never saw such a scene in all the days of my life.

‘There was the farmer and his two sons carrying out the poor people’s goods into the ditch by the road – two families with lots of little children, one a baby very ill in the cradle.

‘Two more families are to be ejected tomorrow, and eight of the squire’s tenants have received notice to quit from his agents.’

In a scene reminiscent of the annual Tolpuddle march that is held to this day, another report describes a procession through the village, led by a band.

Men, women and children carried flags and banners and the strikers themselves wore blue ribbons and rosettes in their hats.

A closer look at the photograph reveals three musicians in the centre, one with a fiddle, another holding an accordion, a third carrying a drum or tambourine.

At least two men appear to be drawing attention to the ribbons on their jackets.

The strikers were demanding a wage increase above their current 12 shillings (60p) a week.

One sympathiser described the treatment by their employer, Mr Fowler, as ‘brutal’.

‘Unfortunately, a very large portion of the cottages of Dorsetshire are held by the labourers as part and parcel of their wages,’ he added. ‘The occupants therefore can be ejected at almost a moment’s notice, without the trouble of going through any legal process.’

The evicted labourers included Alfred Martin, whose great-great grandson, Graham Baldwin, and his wife, Bridget, were living in Bournemouth in the 1990s and told me more about Graham’s ancestor.

‘I think Alfred was one of those that stirred them all up to strike for higher wages,’ said Bridget, who had researched the background.

‘After being evicted, he went to Yorkshire with his 21-year-old daughter, Charlotte, and his son, George, who was two years younger.

‘Later they went on to Bolton, Lancashire, where according to one of his grand-daughters he became manager of a slate works.’

Charlotte Martin eventually left Lancashire in 1879 and went to London to marry James Cox Stroud, whom she had known at Milborne St Andrew.

‘He was born in the Weymouth Workhouse, taught himself to read and write and joined the Metropolitan Police,’ Bridget told me.

‘He ended up conducting the police band. He and Charlotte had six children, all of whom lived to a great age.’

By: Roger Guttridge

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