The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ tree

AN ancient oak tree famous for sheltering the six farm workers who became world-famous as the Tolpuddle Martyrs is having its story told this year in a series of events organised by the National Trust.

The tree was given to the Trust to look after in 1934. Now 320 years old, it is the events of 1833-34 which gave its historic significance. Six agricultural labourers met under its branches to discuss their poor wages and living conditions. They were arrested in 1834 for swearing a secret oath and transported to Australia. Their case led to a huge public outcry and the six were eventually pardoned and returned home, though only one man settled back in Dorset.

The Tolpuddle Martyr’s Tree is being celebrated as part of the Trust’s People’s Landscapes programme, which marks places where people came together to create change.

Thanks to funding from the Arts Council England and the Art Fund, artist Bob and Roberta Smith has been commissioned to work with the Trust at Tolpuddle. He will hold art schools under the tree with pupils from Thomas Hardye school in Dorchester and Wey Valley in Weymouth, teaching them to paint. The students will paint portraits on placards of people who are imprisoned today for their art.

The artist says: “We will be thinking about some of the artists around the world today who have tried to speak out using their art, and have been imprisoned for it. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were just ordinary people trying to better their situation. I think that’s what we all want – a better world.”

Local people will also be invited into sessions to paint the tree itself on placards, which will be displayed during the Tolpuddle Festival on 19th to 21st July, and in a special exhibition at Shire Hall Courthouse Museum in Dorchester, home to the original court room and jail where the Martyrs were held and convicted.

Sophie Bull, who is co-ordinating the project for the National Trust, says: “It’s wonderful to be able to invite young people and local adults to learn to paint with Bob. Not only is he a celebrated artist with an international reputation, but he is passionate about opening up access to art for everyone.”

As part of a series of community events, the National Trust is also organising storytelling under the tree as part of the Tolpuddle Street Fayre. Local storyteller Martin Maudsley will spin tales for families on Sunday 26th May. There will be a walk from Tolpuddle to Dewlish on Saturday 15th June, following the footsteps of the Martyrs.

For more information about the events visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hardys-cottage

Pictured: Artist Bob and Roberta Smith sketching the Tolpuddle Tree;  photo National Trust/Clive Whitbourn