West Country Rebels

Nigel Costley, West Country Rebels
West Country Rebels Cov c
Seen by many as the peaceful, quiet corner of Britain where people visit for holidays or spend their retirement, the West Country has in fact had a turbulent and radical past. It is a place where working people have fought for their rights and rebellions have sprung up against the establishment.

Most people will have heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and many will also know about the Swing Riots, but few would read stories about the 1913 China Clay Strike where Cornish clay workers first organised themselves or the Grovelly Wood Rebels who fought from 1820 to stop their rights of access to the woods being taken away from them by the local lord, their fight continued until 1987!

South West TUC Regional Secretary Nigel Costley felt that the stories of ordinary people across the West Country needed to be told and has collected hundreds of accounts to produce “West Country Rebels”. The book is well written and beautifully put together, something you’d expect from a former compositor and Father of Chapel.

“West Country Rebels” looks at riots, revolts, wreckers, rebellions, smugglers, mutinies, strikers and radicals, not subjects normally associated with the South West, but as Nigel points out in the books introduction: “for much of its past, the West Country has been in turmoil. The story of the South West includes many characters that have taken great risks and made huge sacrifices to defend their families and communities or to pursue a cause in which they passionately believed... This book is about such people and about solidarity.”

The book covers a wide timeframe, from the Cornish Rebellion in 1497 to recent riots in Bristol against a supermarket opening and tells stories of free miners in the Forest of Dean, farmworkers in Dorset, textile workers in Wiltshire and women “Bel Maidens” in Cornwall. As well as the mass uprisings and movements, the book also looks at the stories of people behind them, such as union leader Ben Tillet and social reformer Josephine Butler.

It doesn’t go into great detail on each episode, covering so much ground that would be impossible, but instead offers snap shots of the area history that build to show a picture of a region whose peo-ple stood up for themselves, fought oppression from landlords and employers through organisation and continue to do so today.

By drawing together all these stories from the regions past Nigel has shown what working people can do when they organise themselves, and that the stories of battles in the past are not only inter-esting points of history but lessons that can be used when facing todays challenges. As Tony Benn comments in  the books forward “Giving people hope is the most important thing, and thats what this book does. It is a very remarkable book.”

The book is available from and

Author Nigel Costley started work as an apprentice compositor – one of the last to be trained in ‘hot metal’. While learning the trade it was changing rapidly and he was made redundant twice. It was his union, the National Graphical Association that helped him find new work and get re-trained as techology marched on. Nigel was elected Father of the Chapel and then, at 24-years-old, the youngest full-time officer in the union. He spent fifteen years in the role through the most turbulent times for printing and trade unionism. He particularly championed support for those out of work, including establishing a unique training co-operative. Having escaped school as soon as he could, Nigel returned to education on a part-time basis, eventually achieving a MSc with Leicester University. He became South West TUC Regional Secretary in 1996. Nigel is responsible for the way the TUC remembers the Tolpuddle Martyrs and he has overseen the transformation of the annual rally into a hugely poular celebration of trade unionism.

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