Labour Journeys: Tolpuddle Martyrs of London, Ontario | The Soap Box

January 26, 2023 by Bob Thompson

While preparing an outline for an upcoming U of T Industrial Relations undergraduate summer course, with the helpful assistance of CIRHR Library staff, I learned something labour historians already know: a classic British historical event from 1834 has a Canadian connection. What some claim may be the first recorded occurrence of a protest by organized labour, six farmers made an oath to one another that they would not accept work for less than 10 shillings per week. They became the Tolpuddle Martyrs who in the face of a punishing economy and decreasing wages, as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, entered into this pact. For their actions, all six individuals were convicted of breaching the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797 and sentenced to penal transportation to Australia.

Over the next two years, a groundswell of support for the Tolpuddle Six resulted in a petition with 800,000 signatures, one of the first recorded political protest marches for worker justice, and a pardon that brought them back to England. Once home, five of these martyrs chose to migrate to Canada and settled in London, Ontario.

I recently took a trip down the 401 to view the heritage plaque commemorating them (depicted in the photo). My Summer Abroad course in July (IRE332Y: Historical British Industrial and Cultural Influences on the Contemporary Workplace) based in Canterbury, Kent will examine the historical impact on the workplace of this and other significant events in England during the Industrial Revolution. As part of the curriculum, participants will travel, among other places, to Dorsetshire, UK to attend the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival. A formal event that has been memorializing the Tolpuddle Martyrs for almost one hundred years. The Woodsworth’s Summer Abroad program allows for experiences such as these where a deeper meaning can be brought to transformational historical events related to workers and the workplace.

Bob Thompson has been teaching ADR, IR and law courses at UofT’s Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources since 2007. He has also been teaching at other institutions, most notably Negotiations for Lawyers for several years at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, and an array of courses in HR and Business at Seneca College. Prior to joining academia, Bob was Senior Employment Law Counsel at Canada’s largest financial institution, Manager of Labour Relations at Canada’s largest grocery retailer, and spent his formative years in HR and Engineering at Canada’s largest automotive manufacturer. Bob received his engineering degree at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, his law degree and an MBA at the University of Ottawa, an MBA at the University of Kent at Canterbury, England and his Master of Laws degree in ADR at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. Bob is currently a member of the Board of Directors for the HRPA.