From the TUC

Standing together: the West Country’s trade union links

07 Sep 2013, By


Deckchairs on Bournemouth beach. Photo: Bournemouth Tourism

Bournemouth, where TUC Congress starts this week, is a magnet for tourists and conference delegates. But holidaymakers may have to dig more than the odd sandcastle to discover the area’s more radical and rebellious past.

Over the generations land was carved up with little regard for ordinary people who relied on it for subsistence. We can only imagine the suffering as enclosures took away basic rights. But people did fight back.

In the forests around the nearby towns of Mere and Gillingham in the early 1600s, locals organised to defend their rights of access to the woodlands. The fences, erected by Thomas Brunker, the hated agent of the distant landowner, the First Earl of Elgin, were constantly smashed. Even when the authorities made arrests, the crowds would force their release. Parliamentary troops were summoned to quell the trouble only for them to sympathise with the locals. Eventually opposition subsided when allotments of land were provided for the poor and much of the forest cut down.

Life was hard for those dependent upon the sea and the poor chalk soils of Dorset. The authorities struggled to prevent enterprising people from grabbing opportunities to smuggle or poach. Extensive ‘free-trade’ operations were developed and Bournemouth and Poole offered good landing sites.

Isaac Gulliver became the head of a major operation ‘employing’ hundreds of people. he even bought Eggarden hill so he could plant trees as beacons for his ships. Kinson Church was used to hide contraband and the grave of robert Trotman highlights how people judged smuggling. he was killed – “barbarously murder’d” – by customs officers on the beach near Bournemouth in 1765 while off-loading some tea. The grave says “Put tea in one scale, human blood in tother. And think what tis to slay thy harmless Brother.”

Those who lived off the land received meagre wages. When trade slumped or harvests were bad families often starved. new threshing machines made matters worse and in 1830 workers tried to fight back.

Starting in Kent, the Swing rebellion saw outbreaks of arson and machine-wrecking sweep across southern England. Farm hands would post demanding letters signed by the fictitious Captain Swing. The authorities supressed the uprising and more than 500 people were transported, 19 hanged and over 600 imprisoned.

Just three years later George Loveless, Methodist preacher from Tolpuddle, persuaded farm workers that there was a better way to protect themselves and their families. In 1834 unions were legal and growing fast but Squire Frampton appealed to Lord Melborne, Home Secretary, to stop these “dangerous and alarming” societies and to restore the labourers’ “minds to their usual state of quietness and order”. The early unionists took a pledge of solidarity and secrecy and six Tolpuddle leaders were arrested, charged and transported for administering an illegal oath.

Outrage at the treatment was felt across the country and the fledgling unions mobilised a mass campaign of petitions, protest meetings, marches and legal arguments. The government backed down and gave free pardons and the fare home. The Tolpuddle Martyrs have become a symbol of the right to organise ever since.

Slavery has its legacy here. The nearby Drax Estate, the family home of the South Dorset Conservative MP, is one of a number of massive land holdings established on the back of the transatlantic slave trade. Some slaves were brought back as servant trophies and they left traces of early black history in the area. Thomas Lewis Johnson, a former slave from Virginia, settled in Bournemouth and wrote about his 28 years in slavery.

In the late nineteenth century, Bournemouth flourished as a resort but the town attracted some radical voices as well as the tourists. Hurbert Parry was born in the town. Best known for setting William Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’ to music in 1916, the composer and his wife were strong supporters of the suffragettes that took up the music as their battle anthem.

Beatrice and Sidney Webb had strong links with Bournemouth and helped establish the Fabian Society here. It was Sidney who wrote Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution. For a while Tribune was printed on the Bournemouth Times presses and Beatrice spoke at many meetings in the town, including in 1910 on her minority report on the Poor Law Commission. She called for public spending to relieve poverty.

The TUC first came to Bournemouth in 1926. This was a crisis conference following the General Strike. Walter Citrine was elected as General Secretary – to his surprise. he had been running the TUC as Deputy following the death of Fred Bramley the previous October.

It was a difficult time for the four million members in 207 different trade unions. new anti-union laws followed the defeat of the strike and the miners were still locked out. Unemployment was set to get worse and membership fall further.

It was 32 years later when the TUC came back to Bournemouth. By 1958 membership had risen to well above eight million members and the Movement was in confident mood.

In 1988 Congress again assembled in the town. Unions had been battered by nine years of Mrs Thatcher’s government and she had just won another term. The most significant moment of the conference came when Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission, spoke to rally trade unions to the benefits of the EU in defending workers’ rights, public services and strong welfare.

Echoes of past struggles and debates will no doubt be heard again as Congress meets in Bournemouth this week.