The old sycamore tree stands proudly on Tolpuddle village green. One of its low-hanging branches is within my reach, so I grab it and hook my heel onto a neighbouring branch. I hoist my body through and inch my way up the tree, praying that my pinafore doesn’t get caught in the branches; the last thing I need is my mother getting annoyed because I’ve arrived home with another tear in my clothes. It’s been a while since I’ve climbed a tree and I can hear my heart beating with the effort. Come on, Elizabeth, you can do it, I urge myself, as I pull my body onto a thick branch and make myself comfortable.
Above me, hidden in the autumnal canopy, is a bullfinch chirping happily as it feeds on the sticky sap that oozes from cracks in the bark.
My stomach growls with hunger. I have not eaten since last night and that was a few measly turnip tops made into a watery stew. To distract myself I watch the comings and goings of the village beneath me. Thin trails of smoke escape from the small chimneys that sprout from the thatched roofs below. The spire of St John’s protrudes grandly above the village and, if I squint, I can see my tiny cottage at the far end of the road, next to the small Methodist chapel. Surrounding the cottages are meadows and fields as far as the eye can see. Tolpuddle feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s seven miles to Dorchester and 121 miles to London, but I’ve been to neither. Mother says there is no need as everything I might want is right here.
My family has laboured on these fields for generations, but we don’t own any of the land. Everything in the village belongs to Squire Frampton, who lives in a grand manor house on the outskirts of the village, but he isn’t spotted much in Tolpuddle as he’d rather be attending his grand parties and rubbing shoulders with the gentry than mixing with us poor folk.
“Elizabeth, where are you?” It’s my mother calling, with my younger siblings trotting in her wake. She reminds me of a duck with her ducklings waddling after her as they make their way along the stony road. There is annoyance in her voice, and I push myself against the trunk as she passes below. As the eldest daughter, I am expected to help her look after the little’uns. There are three little’uns: Susan, Charity and William. They’re sweet enough but I don’t think it’s fair that I should have to help. I’m nearly fourteen and have better things to do. My elder brother John works on the farm with Father and seems to get out of all household chores.
Mother makes her way up the street and eventually disappears into the distance.
“I’m so hungry,” I say aloud, directing my words towards the sycamore tree. I’m sure this tree is my best friend. My father once said to me, “Elizabeth, friendship is a sheltering tree. It will protect you from the searing rays of the summer sun and from the cold downfall of the sharp winter rain.” But it offers me more than that, it offers me solitude and peace. It allows me to think. A break from the cramped conditions of home.
In the distant fields I can see carthorses being led back to their stables after a hard day’s ploughing. The horses snort and stamp their feet impatiently, waiting for their evening meal.
“I should snort and stamp my feet, maybe then I’ll get fed,” I mutter.
The winged seeds of the sycamore fall and propel their way through the breeze until they find somewhere new to settle. The Roman Army introduced the sycamore to England. Perhaps one of the seeds got stuck to a centurion as he marched through Europe and when the time was right the seed let go and set down new roots in a different place. How I wish it could be that easy for me.
Voices below rouse me from my daydreams. A small group of men, still in their work smocks and straw hats, are catching up after a day of ploughing on Mr Northover’s farm.
“Why has George Loveless called this meeting?” says one of the farm labourers to the others.
“I don’t know how George thinks he can get our wages raised. Squire Frampton has already lied to us. He said he’d raise the wages, got us all to do the harvest and paid us a measly six shillings,” another says.
“We’ll be lucky if we don’t all starve to death by the end of winter,” says his friend despondently.
They’re waiting for George Loveless, who is my uncle. Uncle George is a farm worker, like most of the men in the village, but he is also a lay preacher in the Methodist church. He is desperate to find a solution to the low pay of farm labourers, and has arranged a meeting, under this tree, to discuss how the workers can fight for better wages.
The labourers are soon joined by others until the crowd grows to around forty men, most of them from Tolpuddle. I notice that no women are present; they’ll all be too busy looking after the children and doing the chores. Mother will not be happy with me when I get back. She will accuse me of not doing my fair share of housework.
Oh well, I’m already in trouble, I might as well stay here quietly and watch what’s going on. I hope that I won’t be noticed hiding so high in the tree.
Father has arrived at the meeting with my elder brother, John. Standing next to them is John’s best friend James. James is the only man in the crowd not wearing a smock. Instead he is wearing a baggy black jacket with its sleeves rolled up, a coarse wool shirt and a pair of torn britches. Even though his father was a cobbler he wears no shoes. I can’t tear my eyes away from James. It’s not only that he is good-looking, though he surely is with his floppy dark hair and deep brown eyes. It’s his presence that intrigues me. He must be sad, for his father died a few months ago. James is now the man of the house, responsible for his mother and four younger siblings. Yet he always smiles and tries to make a joke. He pulls at his fringe as the man standing next to him laughs. James must feel my eyes on him as he turns his head, looks up and his eyes meet mine. As James smiles, I can see that his tooth is chipped at the front. Blood starts pounding in my head and I suddenly feel foolish that I’m sitting up a tree. Panic starts to overwhelm me, and I’m scared that I might fall out and land at his feet in a bloody mess. Embarrassed, I turn my head away. When I look again a few seconds later I’m relieved to see that James is distracted by the arrival of my uncle George. Clutching an old apple crate, Uncle George squeezes through the crowd until he finds some space. He turns the crate upside down on the ground then stands on it. His head pops up above the crowd.
“Thank you for listening to me today,” booms Uncle George. He has such a loud voice for one of short stature. “As you know, Squire Frampton has gone back on his word and cut our wages from ten shillings to six.” Angry murmurs run through the crowd and Uncle George raises his hands to calm the voices. “It is impossible for us to live on such meagre pay. Our families will starve!” A chorus of boos and hisses swell into the air. One man raises a clenched fist to the sky and shakes it in anger.
On the edge of the crowd is a tall man who I haven’t seen before. He looks awkward. His skin is so white it looks bleached. He runs his hands through his golden hair and nervously watches the meeting. His smock is so torn it’s almost rags.
Uncle George raises his voice to be heard over the shouts and curses.
“But we must act within the law. Membership of a trade union is not a crime and gives us the power to raise our pay. All over the country groups of workers are uniting together to improve their working conditions and increase wages. We must act together!” With a flourish of his hand he declares loudly, “Unity is strength!”
Poor Uncle George does not get the encouraging applause he was no doubt hoping for. Instead there are a few muted cheers from the crowd but most of the men look puzzled and some shuffle their feet. This lack of enthusiasm doesn’t deter Uncle George and he presses on.
“To join this new trade union, you must attend the next meeting on Sunday night at Thomas Standfield’s cottage.”
My father looks sheepish at the mention of his name. I wonder if Mother knows yet that Father has agreed to hold union meetings at our home. I want to be there when Father tells her – I imagine Mother won’t be too pleased that forty men have been invited to our tiny cottage.
The crowd disperse and most head to the Crown Inn to have a tankard of ale and discuss what they’ve heard. I hope James will throw me another glance before he leaves, but no such luck. He’s walking towards his home deep in conversation with the tall, pale loner I noticed earlier.
My family are the last to leave the meeting. As Methodists there’s no ale for them, so they head straight home.
When it’s all quiet I scramble down the tree and quickly make my way home, wondering how annoyed Mother will be with me.