Robert Owen, 1834

“…taking a stand at Copenhagen Fields…”

Robert Owen organised a mass protest march to start from this spot in support of Trade Union rights.

Show transcript

Do you believe in a better society? Yes?

And are you willing to build one in your own lifetime? Yes?

Then let me shake your hand for I am your brother.

Greetings, my friend, my name is Robert Owen. Industrialist…philanthropist…utopian socialist…trades union pioneer…madman…dangerous radical… take your pick, I’ve been called them all!

It would take forever to tell you my whole life story… Let’s just say that in 1800 I started my overarching mission – to build an industrial society that was fairer to the working man. And I put every bit of my considerable wealth and every bit of my equally considerable energy into this work.

That’s what brought me here, to Copenhagen Fields, in 1834.

You’re young…you probably don’t remember how turbulent the 1830s were. Riots in the countryside … falling wages … ordinary people demanding the vote…and of course everyone thinking that this was just how the revolutions in America and France began.

So In 1834 I set up the ‘Grand National Consolidated Trades Union’ to promote peaceful negotiation and co-operation between masters and workers.

But it seemed some of the masters did not appreciate collective bargaining.

Six farm labourers from Tolpuddle in Dorset formed a perfectly legal union and tried to affiliate it with the Grand National…and the local landowners came down on them like a ton of bricks. Arrest, obscure, antiquated charges, conviction, packed off for seven years labour in Australia.

But you know, you can’t simply intimidate a union with half a million members!

We held the biggest, best organized, most disciplined mass protest this country had ever seen. And we did it right here where you’re standing, in Copenhagen Fields – one of the few spaces near London large enough to hold us.

The 21st April 1834, and tens of thousands of working men (and some women) met here to march on Westminster and demand a pardon for these men who had done nothing wrong.

Oh, you should have seen it here that morning! As far as the eye could see, bands of sober, serious working men standing under the banners of their trades – tailors, metalworkers, carpenters, weavers, saddlers, hat makers…every trade you can imagine.

The Government had never seen anything like it. The world had never seen anything like it. The six Tolpuddle Martyrs were pardoned – eventually – and allowed to return.

It was a triumph…one of my greatest moments.

The Grand National Consolidated didn’t survive – it was ahead of its time– but I come back here from time to time … to remember our moment of victory that April morning.