The Tolpuddle Pilgrimage: A Methodist Story of Social Justice

18 May 2023

On Saturday 6 May, a group of pilgrims arrived at the village of Tolpuddle, Dorset, under a grey sky and drizzle. Their journey had started the previous Monday at John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol. Over the following week, they walked along both busy and quiet roads, under sun and rain, passing through villages including Chew Stoke, Wells, Castle Cary, Sherborne and Hilfield Friary before arriving at Tolpuddle. 

tolpuddle-2“This pilgrimage began as a piece of youth work trying to engage young adults with the Methodist Church’s history ”, states the Revd Richard Sharples, minister at Victoria Methodist Church in Bristol. And it worked. A few years ago, they had only two young people joining them, there were four this year. “It's important for the Church to recognise that what matters to young people is not the Methodist Church per se, but the difference the Methodist Church and people are making or can make”, adds Richard Sharples.  

The group of pilgrims was dynamic, some staying a while, some leaving the group for a few days before coming back and some joining on the last day. Some are Methodists, some from other denominations, and some who belong to no denomination, but they all came together to walk and discuss their interest and commitment to social justice. Jack, one of the young pilgrims, says, “It's been a really good week but challenging at times. In this time of industrial turmoil, I felt it was important to learn about the Tolpuddle labourers and those people who previously stood up for workers' rights.” 

The journey, as well as the destination, are equally important in this pilgrimage: six labourers from Tolpuddle – four of them being Methodist – created a Friendly society in 1833 requesting fair wages, which resulted in their arrest, trial and transportation to Australia before they were pardoned.  

The Revd Simon Topping, Superintendent Minister and Minister for Bath, Bathampton and Box Methodist Churches, commented, “Learning about that story through a pilgrimage is a great way to reflect together on what happened and on issues to do with social justice, economic justice and inequalities, struggles that we still face today to make the world a more equal and fairer place.” 

tolpuddle-4Traditionally the pilgrimage would happen in July to coincide with the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival organised by the Trade Union Congress (TUC). This year, Richard and Simon decided to set out on 1 May “to make a link with the living wage and the cost-of-living crisis”, adds Richard Sharples.  They were also the first Methodists to set foot in the Tolpuddle Old Chapel, since it was recently refurbished.  

Built in 1818, the chapel was used for ‘non-Conformist’ worship before falling into disuse in the mid-nineteenth century and being replaced by a new Methodist chapel. 

Tolpuddle Old Chapel Trust purchased the Grade II* listed building in 2015 and have worked hard to raise the funds to renovate it creating a quiet place in the heart of this historic Dorset village, for visitors, and to provide the location for activities, exhibitions and community use’. 


Find the Tolpuddle Pilgrimage guide here

Learn more about the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Festival

Learn more about Tolpuddle