Monday 14 July 2008


Dorset Candalemas Fair, Dorchester Saturday 13th February 1886

From time immemorial the Dorset Farm labourers have been accustomed to attend the Candlemas fair at Dorchester for the purpose of obtaining employment.

However at Candelmas Fair 1886 the Farmers were in for a shock as the Times newspaper recorded.

In the weeks leading up to Candelmas Fair leaf
lets had been circulating throughout Dorset, emblazoned upon which was an illustration of "a skeleton driving a plough while the Farmer fat and well dressed looked on" the leaflet when on to call upon the agricultural labourers of Dorset to "Parade the streets, four deep led by bands and banners and singing"

"Give back the land, the stolen land

"Ye know not how to hold;
"To us will yield food and life,
"To you it yields base gold.
"Remember that ye cannot claim
"One acre or sod;
"Give back the land, the wretched cry,
"Ye stole it from your God"

So worried was, the Mayor of Dorchester, especially in light of recent rioting in London that he requested that the march be cancelled, The Times 15th February states "Seeing the character of the announcement and fearing the influence of the London rioting on the minds of the rural populace
e" (unemployed riots in London led by the Social Democratic Federation, crowds call for "Work, Bread or Blood").

According to the Times
, The Dorset authorities made adequate arrangements for the preservation of the peace, and at the request of the mayor the procession was abandoned". However the huge meeting went ahead at 3pm on Saturday 13th February 1886.

Chairman Walter Munford
Speakers George Mitchell (the author of "One from the Plough), Mr S. Pike, Mr T. Wallis (Weymouth), Mr Smith (Whitchurch) and Mr D. Bullam (Poole)

Mr Wallis a tradesman of Weymouth stated

"When God made the earth, he placed man on it to have his fair share of it. It was never intended that the Duke of Westminster or any other man should possess so much land, while those who worked upon it had not their full share. The day of levelling was coming when those who were now great and high would no longer have dominion over the poor and make the slaves they had been for the last century"

George Mitchell referring to Candlemas hiring fair stated

" It did not reflect credit on Dorchester. he appealed to the Farmers whether it would not be more consistent with their common sense to try and make terms with their men at home and deal with those they knew
rather than with strangers"

"A week or two ago a agricultural labourer (in Newbury) died of starvation having 10 shillings a week and six children and 3 shillings a week rent. By contrast he stated that Lord Halsbury and Lord Asbourne had been in office for six months, would receive as a pension, one £5,000 and the other £4,000 per Annum".

George Mitchell was born in M
ontacute, near Yeovil, Somerset in 1827 and began work aged five as "Crow scaring" working 4am until 10pm for 6d a week, he later worked on many local farms being badly treated and paid a pittance. He escaped to London to established his own marble works, but never forgot the plight of the agricultural labourers he left behind.

When Joseph Arch launched his
National Agricultural Labourers Union (NALU) in 1872 Mitchell spent much time and his own money in the South West of England organising the agricultural labourers into the union.

Dorset men joined the NALU and establishing 18 branches of the union within the first nine weeks (by July 1872) of the union being established in Dorset.

Joseph Arch the President of the NAUL spoke in villages throughout Dorset during this period, the first occasion, I believe was on Wednesday 17th July 1872 ,when he spoke to 1,000 men (presumably at Dorchester) where he stated;

"As for the union he believed many would like to blot the word out of the dictionary, but if he had half a dozen children he would teach each of then them to spell union".

Joseph Arch spoke in Doset at Dorchester Corn Exchange on 3rd November 1872, with Hon Auberon Herbert MP, Mr Snook of Whitchurch as Chair, Mr Allington and Mr Allsop of Warwick also speaking to an audience of 1,000.

The next day 4th November 1872 Mr Herbert MP spoke at Wimbourne Minister. So it is possible that Arch spoke at Winterbourne Kingston on the same day, indeed some villages still refered
to the spot where Arch spoke as " Arch's corner ". into the 1960's. Many of these Union meetings in Dorset were held at night by the light of candles or moonlight.

One structural weakness with the NAUL union in Dorset, as elsewhere was that unionism was concentrated in villages with a tradition of non conformist and active friendly societies. Accordingly, a particular villages commitment to the union varied greatly.

A Mr G. Ellington from Dorset was elected onto the National Agricultural Labourers Union first executive, at the May 1872 conference in Leamington

Early strikes began at the village of Compton, where 50 men were on strike, also at Muston and Woodsford These strikers were often brought before the courts for unlawful absence from work, under the Masters & Servants Act and sentenced to heavy fines or six weeks in the House of Correction.

A Mr Symonds the Town Clerk of Dorcheser was particularly keen to suppress (once again) the growth of trade unionism in Dorset, as were the local magistrates, Mr Symonds stating that the Labourers of Dorset were "a race of fools" for joining the union.

The National Agricultural Labourers Union often wore ribbons or "ribands" of dark blue and leaflets in their hats, this is confirmed in various Times newspaper, including an article dated April 2nd 1874.
" Labourers from outlying districts flocked into the town wearing dark blue ribands and the badge of the lockout unionists" .

it was also recorded that at a number of meetings and "pilgrimages (marches) the agricultural labourers wore traditional smocks, but this seems to have been frowned upon by the labourers themselves (such as at Iver and Denham, Buckinghamshire) as a throw back to the dark ages.

While the colour blue is an unusual colour for a union (and a progressive movement) traditional colours of the Levellers, Chartists, Irish was Green and Socialist and Communist Red.

If they were ribands (rather than ribbons), it is probable that they wore a piece or "band" of material worn around the body, around the stomach, under the tail coat but over a waist coat.

The other option was that the ribbons were a deliberate link to the Irish Tenant Farmers waging war on the absent English Landlords, known as the "Ribbonmen" who wore green ribbons ? .

Certainly, by the 1880's trade unionist tended to wear sashes rather than bands and later just badges and T-shirts.