Tolpuddle with a difference!

21 August 2023

By the Revd Gill Newton, President of the Conference

Attending the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival has been a feature of the Presidential calendar for a while, and it was an event which Kerry and I were looking forward to! However, a text received whilst still travelling to the South West on the Saturday morning, suggested our experience might be a little different than anticipated! The high winds, torrential rain and local weather warnings had prompted festival organisers to call off the event the night before. So how we might spend the weekend was unclear until I arrived in Dorchester.

Having had time to settle into our accommodation, the Vice President and I were taken to the Island of Portland where we met local minister, Revd Ruth Lownsbrough. We visited Easton Methodist Church and heard the story of this Grade II listed building with an unusual, but beautiful pulpit carved from local Portland stone. We heard about the hopes and dreams of the all-age congregation meeting at the heart of the community and acknowledged the overwhelming size of the buildings in their care, whilst also hearing about the innovative steps they are beginning to take towards a different future.

tolpuddle-blanketDuring the visit we saw one of the church’s “hidden treasures”. A beautiful, handmade quilt from 1897, made as a fund-raising venture for the Easton Wesleyan Day School Bazaar.

From there we were taken to Portland Bill, where we experienced more strong winds, but also the beauty of this stretch of the Dorset coastline. Whilst there, we pondered on the questionable decision, recently taken by the Home Office, to house 500 vulnerable asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm barge in the port..  The irony of being in Dorset is to mark the stand taken against injustice almost 200 years ago by men from Tolpuddle, yet hearing of the ongoing injustice in our world today was not lost on us!

On Sunday morning, we attended Festival Worship at the Anglican Church in Tolpuddle. Where Bishop of Sherborne, the Right Reverend Karen Gorham, preached on the gospel lectionary passage featuring the parable of the Sower. She challenged us to consider how the small things we do and say can make a big difference, and acknowledged the impact of the decisions made by the Tolpuddle martyrs on the lives of others in the years since.

tolpuddle-wreathLater, we had an opportunity to join with Union representatives on a brief walk through the village. Where we laid a wreath from the Methodist Church alongside those from others, on the grave of James Hammett; whilst offering a few words and a prayer in memory of him and his colleagues. 

We were privileged to meet with some of his descendants and discovered that many family members had only become aware of their links with the Tolpuddle martyrs in recent years. The actions of the farm labourers had not always been spoken of within the families, but the descendants are now extremely proud of all their ancestors did to fight injustice.

We were also glad to speak with some of the Union representatives including the General Secretary of the TUC, Paul Nowak. We were delighted to hear his experience of and openness to working in partnership with faith groups and of his knowledge of the place of the Methodist Church in the history of the Trade Union movement.

We had time in the afternoon to explore the village, see the Old Tolpuddle Chapel and the tree under which the farm labourers are reputed to have sworn their allegiance to each other. In the evening, a Circuit Service was held in Tolpuddle Chapel at which I had the privilege of preaching and the Vice-President led prayers of intercession. Afterwards we were given the opportunity to see inside the Old Chapel and hear of the exciting plans for its future development and use and the Circuit’s hopes for partnering in this work.

The weekend wasn’t all that we had anticipated, but nevertheless we were glad to have the opportunity to mark the stand taken by the Tolpuddle labourers all those years ago. To affirm the ongoing impact of their actions and to recognise the continued need to stand against injustice.

I wonder what words we are speaking, what things we are doing or what choices we are making, that may seem small now, but which might make a big difference to someone else’s life in the future?  Who might have reason to be grateful in years to come, for the stand we are being called to make against injustice today?