By Dan Rankin
Regular readers of our “This Date in History” section may remember the tale, featured in our March 18 issue, of the Tolpuddle Martyrs: five English farm labourers and a preacher who were sentenced to be transported to Australia for forming a trade union back in 1834. Their story has an interesting local connection, as, after widespread public protests resulted in the men being pardoned and permitted to return to England, five of them decided to seek new lives in Canada. One of them, James Brine, settled near Rannoch and raised a family. He died in 1902 and is now buried in the St. Marys Cemetery. A plaque on the headstone he shares with his wife Elizabeth identifies him as one of the “Tolpuddle Martyrs.”
In England, the Martyrs became important symbols in the trade union movement and, every July in the southern English village of Tolpuddle a festival featuring a parade, speeches and music attracts thousands. A museum that tells their story operates out of six connected cottages in the village that were built in memory of the six men.
Brine’s great, great, great, great, great grandson Josh Mitchell, of St. Marys, paid a visit to the museum during a recent trip to England. Mitchell, 24, was in England for three weeks in March and made a point to visit the museum before he left on March 17. He brought along with him some old photos and a family tree his grandfather Murray Mitchell had given him. “People were surprised to see me when they learned of my connection,” he said. “I was soon shaking hands and hearing ‘Thank you’ from everyone – especially from the museum curator who informed me that I was the first descendant of the Brine family to visit the museum. He was very thankful for the information that I had brought with me.”
Before arriving at the museum, Mitchell said he only knew a brief outline about what had happened to Brine and the others. “My grandpa had always told me about them,” he said. “Growing up, we always drove by where James Brine used to live outside of Rannoch when he came to Canada.” They also went to a Brine family reunion every year, but still, all he knew was that Brine had been a convict sent to Australia, he said.
“But I didn’t know the background story, or the extent of the impact he had on history.”
Mitchell called his time at the museum “amazing.”
Some of the memorabilia on display during his visit included the prison registry from when they were arrested, some of their personal belongings, and the marriage certificate of James Brine and Elizabeth Standfield. Elizabeth was related to two other Tolpuddle Martyrs, as she was the daughter of John Standfield, and granddaughter of Thomas Standfield. Consequently, Mitchell is also distantly related to those two men as well.
The museum also features informational banners that unfold their story, from the harsh conditions and meagre wages offered to agricultural workers at the time, to the actions of the wealthy landowner James Frampton who framed them, to the trumped up charges they faced at trial, and their forced transportation to Australia. One panel described how Brine, after having arrived in New South Wales, was sent on his own to report to a specific sheep farm where he would work. On his way, he slept a night in the outback, where he was robbed of his clothes and rations by bandits.
“The whole experience was a little overwhelming,” Mitchell said. “The guest book was signed by so many people who were thankful for what the martyrs did. What will stick with me the most is the overwhelming support of everyone.”
The museum also has a free downloadable ‘app’ that provides an informative tour around Tolpuddle.
“It takes you to some of the locations like the church a couple of the martyrs used to preach at, the old martyrs cottage, and the famous Martyrs Tree where they took secret vows to form their organization,” he said. “The tree now has a plaque given by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in celebration of her Golden Jubilee designating the Tolpuddle Martyrs Tree as one of 50 ‘Great British trees’ in recognition of its place in national heritage.”
After England, Mitchell visited France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where he bungee jumped from the same site as the big jump at the start of the James Bond film GoldenEye, and also witnessed Canada’s gold medal-winning performance at the World Curling Championship. “While I travelled throughout Europe, I asked people if they knew of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and I was surprised by how many people – old and young – knew about the story or had heard the name,” he said.
Mitchell returned from the trip – a present to himself for graduating from the University of Guelph – at the end of April. Now living back in St. Marys, he said Peru and Iceland both rank high up on his list of where to travel next.