There has been an annual gathering at Tolpuddle, Dorset, since the 1930s. It has grown over the years and today it sees thousands of trade unionists from all over the world gathering to celebrate the memory of the Tolpuddle Martys. It was here in 2018, 100 years after women got the vote, that I heard a speech honouring the wives’ of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The speaker described the joy and terror of childbirth, and how women had to try and cope to stretch out their husbands meagre earnings to feed their families.
This speech got me thinking; how women are often under represented in history. Their contribution to society, whether in domestic sphere or wider world have in most part be disregarded.
Sheltering Tree examines the nature of the women’s role in the formation of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. Drawing on correspondence, journals and even recipes of the time I have tried to reveal the stories of the women of Tolpuddle. It is a behind the scenes looks of the formation of the Tolpuddle Union and the women everyday trials and tireless pursuits on behalf of their families
The protagonist of the book is 15 year old Elizabeth Standsfield – the daughter of Thomas Standfield, the sister of John Standfield and the future wife of James Brine – all men transported and became three out of the six Tolpuddle martyrs.
I have written the book aimed for middle grade and young adults but it would be a fascinating read for everyone. I have aimed it as this age group as recognising the achievements of others allows girls of today to achieve strength and inspiration from those before us. The struggles and adversity that Elizabeth Brine overcame and her accomplishments are still relevant for todays readers.
Another important theme that the Sheltering Tree explores, is the role of the landscape. In the 1830s the Tolpuddle villagers would of had deep engagement with the natural world. I describe how Elizabeth finds beauty and solace in the landscape, especially the Sycamore Tree. Tolpuddle still looks, on the surface, very like it would have in the 1830s but what is missing is the wealth of wildlife we had then: hedgehogs and waterholes have all but gone, nightingales rare, hardly any butterflies, compared to a hundred years ago. Across this landscape I can imagine the women of Tolpuddle crossing over the fields and doing what women do best – putting one foot in front of the other and carrying on.