The workers’ revolution

Two hundred years ago, a working-class uprising was brutally quashed amid accusations that government spies had deliberately incited the rebels. Stephen Bates relates the tragedy of the Pentrich revolt

Illustration by Luke Waller

On 9 June 1817, a mob of men marched nervously through darkness and driving rain down the country lanes of Derbyshire. They were on their way – or so they thought – to capture Nottingham, 14 miles away, as part of a national revolt to overthrow the government. They did not know it at the time but the Pentrich Revolutionaries, as they came to be called, were taking part in the last armed insurrection in English history – and, according to the late historian EP Thompson, the first entirely working-class political uprising.

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Armed with pikes and a few muskets, and led by an unemployed stocking weaver called Jeremiah Brandreth – known to them for his Luddite activities as ‘the Nottingham Captain’ – they expected to be joined by thousands of others marching down “like a cloud” from Yorkshire and Lancashire.

They were assured that a further 50,000 men in London could be quickly summoned to seize the government and capture the Bank of England. They did not know that, in reality, they were on their own.

Most of the men were unclear as to what the political aim was, beyond cancelling the national debt and shooting ministers. Perhaps a provisional government would be set up, one that would hand out provisions to the starving populace – but, more immediately, the men had been promised money, food, rum and boat rides on the river Trent.

As they marched wearily on, Brandreth led the singing:

“The time is come, you plainly see,

The government opposed must be.”

An unlikely catalyst

The men on the march were weavers, farm labourers and iron workers. Most were related to each other, and many – including Brandreth – were Primitive Methodists. They blamed the autocratic government and aristocratic ministers for their distress. Many were out of work and without food, the result of the contraction of the economy after the Napoleonic Wars.

But they were also victims of a natural phenomenon of which they had no idea. An ash cloud from the 1815 volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, is now recognised to have affected the climate across the world over several seasons, wrecking harvests in the northern hemisphere. As a result, food and particularly bread had become expensive – landowners’ incomes were protected by the newly enacted Corn Laws, keeping wheat prices high – and in short supply.

To maintain morale and keep out of the rain, the men – who had been gathered mainly from villages around Pentrich,

South Wingfield and Ripley – stopped at pubs, demanding beer, bread and cheese. Brandreth also led them to local farmhouses, where they coerced the residents into giving them money and firearms, and pressed workers to join the uprising. At the home of a widow named Mary Hepworth, they smashed the window shutters when the occupants refused to open up, and Brandreth fired his musket into the kitchen, fatally hitting a servant called Robert Walters in the neck.

The next target was the Butterley iron works. The company had recently sacked several men for attending a political meeting – some of them had joined the march – and the manager, George Goodwin, had set his remaining workers to guard the gates. When the crowd approached, he confronted them and said they should go home or risk being hanged. One young man, Isaac Ludlum, trembling violently, retorted: “I am as bad as I can be. I must go on – I cannot go back.” Others were not so sure; many peeled off and vanished into the night, pursued by threats from Brandreth. The depleted mob approached Nottingham on the morning of 10 June, only to be met by a detachment of the 15th Hussars – the authorities had been expecting them. The men turned on their heels and fled back across the fields, into the arms of waiting magistrates.

Secret letter

An uprising against the government had been brewing for some time. While many people had joined Hampden Clubs (named after a 17th-century parliamentarian) across the country to discuss political reform, others vented their frustration more aggressively. Demonstrations in London’s Spa Fields in December 1816 had ended in violence as followers of the radical bookseller Thomas Spence campaigned for the abolition of private land and universal suffrage.

Fearing a repeat of the French Revolution, which he’d witnessed first hand as a student visiting Paris, prime minister Lord Liverpool hurriedly introduced repressive legislation, including the suspension of Habeas Corpus (which requires a person under arrest to be brought before a court). And when a delegation of 5,000 unemployed Lancashire weavers attempted to march from Manchester to London in March 1817 to plead for food, they were dispersed by troops before getting beyond Stockport.

In the absence of a police force, home secretary Lord Sidmouth relied on spies to keep the government informed of what was going on. One of these was a man named William Richards, a carpenter and surveyor who had been an associate of radicals before being imprisoned for debt. On his release in March 1817, he went to see Sidmouth to offer his services, and was sent north as an undercover agent. He adopted the name William Oliver, and would become known as ‘Oliver the Spy’. Accompanied by his friend Joseph Mitchell, a genuine radical, Richards infiltrated meetings and reported back.

Mitchell was arrested soon after, but Oliver escaped capture by showing authorities a secret letter from Sidmouth – “He is an intelligent man and deserving of your confidence” – and was allowed to slip back to London. He returned to the Midlands and Yorkshire in May, and continued to attend meetings. Known as “the London delegate”, Oliver told the organisers that thousands across the country were ready to join an uprising. To what extent he actively provoked potential rebels remains unknown, but he certainly did not discourage the desperate talk at meetings in Huddersfield and Nottingham. One veteran radical, Tommy Bacon – described by the authorities as “a pertinacious old man” – returned home to Pentrich telling locals of a “coming blow”.

Brandreth was another regular at the meetings, and in June he left his wife and three young children in Sutton-in-Ashfield, and moved to Pentrich, ready for the imminent uprising. He missed a meeting at the Punchbowl Inn in Nottingham, where increasingly suspicious plotters interrogated Oliver about his background. One told him: “They were not so fond of being hung for nothing at Nottingham as they were in Lancashire.” Lucky to escape with his life, the spy hurriedly departed for London.

Barbaric punishment

In the days following the rebels’ dispersal, authorities arrested 47 of the men. They were charged as false traitors, for “not having the fear of God in their hearts, not weighing the duty of their allegiance but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil”. Among the 47 was Brandreth, who had tried to escape to America but returned penniless to Nottinghamshire.

By the time of the trial before the Lord Chief Justice at Derby in October 1817, Oliver had been unmasked by the Leeds Mercury – he had been spotted outside a pub in Wakefield talking to a servant of local military commander General John Byng – and the authorities were worried about using him as a witness. Oliver was spirited to a nearby hotel but his name was never mentioned at the 10-day trial – incitement was no excuse for treason.

Traditionally, charges of treason had been reserved for aristocratic rebels. Indeed, Tommy Bacon, who had lain low during the uprising but been arrested nonetheless, was quoted as saying: “[It’s been] never known in England before that labouring men were tried for high treason… men who can scarce tell a letter in the alphabet.”

With a jury dominated by local landowners, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. In the dock, Brandreth cut a fearsome figure – the stuff of respectable nightmares – as his black beard had not been trimmed in prison. He had killed a man during the march and expected no mercy. His lieutenants, Isaac Ludlum the Elder, William Turner and George Weightman, were also sentenced to death, though Weightman’s sentence was later remitted on account of his youth and good character. Of the remaining men, 23 – including Bacon – were sentenced to transportation (none of them ever returned to Derbyshire) and 21 were acquitted. The Duke of Devonshire, owner of Pentrich, had the cottages of the rebels demolished.

The punishment for traitors was still barbaric, and included beheading and quartering, though the Prince Regent remitted the last detail. Brandreth, who was literate, left his pregnant wife Ann all his worldly possessions, which amounted pathetically to “one work bag, two balls of worsted and one of cotton, a handkerchief, an old pair of stockings, a shirt and a letter

I received from my beloved sister”. On the scaffold, a furious William Turner shouted to the crowd: “This is all Oliver and the government.” But to what extent did the government deliberately provoke the uprising against them? The journalist William Cobbett was in no doubt. In his Political Register newspaper, he wrote:

“The employers of Oliver might, in an hour, have put a total stop to those preparations and blown them to air. They wished not to prevent but to produce those acts.” However, Lord Sidmouth was having none of it. He wrote to the Yorkshire magnate

Earl Fitzwilliam, insisting that such claims were incredible: “It was directly at variance with the instructions given to Oliver and with his communications…to myself.”

The Pentrich revolt turned out to be the last attempt to overthrow a government by a general uprising – and not just because of the severe punishments meted out. In the ensuing years, prosperity returned to the country as harvests improved and the economy recovered. Eventually – gradually and reluctantly – parliamentary reform would be conceded. Soon, there would be local police forces (Derbyshire being the last to acquire one), governments would become more pervasive and responsive – and harassed ministers would grow more wary of employing untrained spies.

Stephen Bates is a journalist and author, who is currently researching the Peterloo massacre.

An age of rebellion

Regency Britain was not as tranquil as Jane Austen’s novels suggest…

Luddites cause havoc

Between 1811 and 1816, there were numerous outbreaks of Luddism across the Midlands and the North. Gangs of weavers thrown out of work or fearing the loss of wages following the introduction of weaving frames wrecked machinery at mills and factories under the leadership of the mythical Ned Ludd.

Government hijacking plot

In November and December 1816, meetings at London’s Spa Fields – held to present a petition demanding parliamentary reform to the Prince Regent – were hijacked by radicals trying to incite an uprising to overthrow the government. There was arson and violence as a group marched towards the Bank of England, before being dispersed.

The march of the Blanketeers

In March 1817, around 5,000 unemployed weavers, known as the Blanketeers because they carried blankets, attempted to march from Manchester to London to petition the Prince Regent for food. Most got no further than Stockport before they were dispersed by troops. The march alarmed ministers, leading to the arrests of several suspected radicals.

Bloodletting at Peterloo

In August 1819, a peaceful crowd attending a Manchester rally to call for political reform was broken up by Yeomanry and Army cavalry. At least 18 people lost their lives, and hundreds more were injured, in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

Cabinet in the firing line

In February 1820, a radical named Arthur Thistlewood and his small band of followers plotted to assassinate the cabinet. The London-based gang were exposed by an undercover agent and later seized as they gathered above a stable at Cato Street, near Edgware Road. Five were hanged and then beheaded, while five were transported.

The Great Reform Act

In June 1832, in the face of a rising tide of disaffection at the absence of parliamentary reforms, the Whig government passed the Great Reform Act. This marginally extended the franchise, abolished rotten boroughs and gave parliamentary representation to new industrial cities.

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This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine