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The Pentrich Uprising Against the British Government

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Farm labourers, weavers, and iron workers, all of them hungry and angry, took part in what they hoped would be an uprising to remove a government they saw as dominated by aristocratic oppressors.

The Pentrich Uprising was a doomed attempt to bring down the government of Prime Minister Lord Liverpool (above).

The Pentrich Uprising was a doomed attempt to bring down the government of Prime Minister Lord Liverpool (above).

Aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars

In 1817, Britain was going through some social upheavals. The cost of the Napoleonic Wars (1792 to 1815) had drained the government's finances and brought about an economic downturn. The Industrial Revolution had killed the jobs of craft workers.

Only land owners could vote for parliamentarians, denying democratic representation to millions of middle and working class people.

Members of Parliament, responding to the demands of those who elected them, passed the Corn Law of 1815, which kept the price of grain high. Food prices were rising at a time when the incomes of working people were stagnant or declining.

Poverty and hunger stalked those at the bottom of the economic scale. The people with the power to alleviate the stress, that is parliamentarians, were disinclined to enact relief, preferring instead to blame the poor as agents of their own misfortune.

There were disturbances and riots to which the government responded with severe repression. Britainexpress.com comments that “the result was to intensify in the sufferers the belief first that relief could be obtained only by their own acquisition of political power, and, secondly, that the acquisition of political power would bring relief as a matter of course.”

Uprising Organizer

This is where we meet Jeremiah Brandreth, a stocking weaver by trade and a revolutionary by conviction. He is believed to have taken part in Luddite activities in which weavers smashed the machines that produced cheap cloth and threatened their livelihoods. He was at the forefront of movements to secure better pay and working conditions for those who laboured for land and factory owners.

In May 1817, he met with William J. Oliver (sometimes William Richards) who said he was organizing a plan to bring down the government. Oliver said 50,000 men were going to march on London, and Brandreth was eager to join.

He began organizing a contingent of followers in his native Derbyshire, in north-central England. He recruited a motley group of between 50 and 300 disgruntled villagers from Pentrich and other communities.

Men were encouraged to join the insurrection with the promise “they would receive 100 guineas (a substantial amount of money for the era), bread, meat and ale.” They were armed with pitchforks, cudgels, and a few muskets.

Jeremiah Brandreth in shackles.

Jeremiah Brandreth in shackles.

March on Nottingham

On the evening of June 9, 1817, the men began their march on Nottingham, 14 miles away. The plan was to join up with thousands of men who Brandreth believed would already have seized the city.

Then, a huge army would march on London, toss out the government, and replace it with one attuned to the needs of working people. There was a vague promise to cancel the national debt.

Writing for The Guardian, Stephen Bates notes that among the marchers “Many probably had little idea of politics but were starving and desperate to overthrow Tory (conservative) ministers indifferent to their hardship.”

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They set out from Pentrich on a cold and rainy night and Brandreth tried to raise the dampened spirits of the men by chanting a rhyme:

Every man his skill must try
He must turn out and not deny;
No bloody soldier must he dread,
He must turn out and fight for bread.
The time is come you plainly see
The government opposed must be.

As they passed farms and pubs they demanded food and beer. They encouraged others to join them and if they knew of the whereabouts of guns they took them.

At one farm, Mary Hepworth refused to open her house to the men, so they smashed her windows, then Brandreth fired his musket killing a servant inside.

Walking into a Trap

As the column of insurrectionists approached Nottingham it was met by a mounted detachment of soldiers. The government knew all about the putative uprising and was ready to put it down. William Oliver, the man who encouraged Brandreth and others to rebel, was an agent working for Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth.

Faced with armed cavalry, the would-be rebels scattered into the field and woods. The authorities rounded up 47 of the plotters including Brandreth. The men were brought to trial with Brandreth and three of his lieutenants charged with high treason, an indictment usually reserved for aristocrats bent on attacking the monarch. William Oliver had been spirited away and no mention of his involvement in the plot emerged during the court proceedings.

The jury was made up of landowners who were not going to tolerate the idea that a rabble might overturn the privileges they enjoyed. Brandreth, Isaac Ludlum, and William Turner were found guilty and sentenced to death; a couple of dozen others were transported to Australia while their families were evicted from their homes, which were then destroyed.

The three ringleaders were hanged and, when dead, beheaded in an egregious act of retribution designed to discourage others from rebelling against the established order.

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley called out the government for its gruesome mistreatment of Brandreth, Ludlum, and Turner by writing that “Their death, by hanging and beheading, and the circumstances of which it is the characteristic and the consequence, constitute a calamity such as the English nation ought to mourn with an unassuageable grief.”

The grisly end to the Pentrich Uprising.

The grisly end to the Pentrich Uprising.

The Six Acts

On the gallows, a furious Turner shouted “This is all Oliver and the government,” thereby making the claim that he and his fellow rebels had been set up.

Earl Fitzwilliam, the Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire, blamed the entire episode on Oliver the Spy and, by extension, the government that was his paymaster. The implication being that Lord Sidmouth used Oliver to foment the uprising that gave the government an excuse to crackdown on dissidents.

Contemporary journalist William Cobbett sided with Fitzwilliam when he wrote, “The employers of Oliver might in an hour have put a total stop to [the] preparations and blown them to air. They wished not to prevent but to produce those acts.”

Sidmouth, of course, labelled that allegation “incredible.” Perhaps, but certainly convenient, because the government used the Pentrich uprising and subsequent unrest to bring in the so-called Six Acts. These allowed for censorship of the press, the banning of mass meetings, gave magistrates the right enter private homes to search for arms, and curtailed the rights of people facing trial.

Eventually, most of the provisions in the Six Acts were repealed and Britain did not descend civil unrest and revolution. It was improvements in the economy that dampened the zeal for dissent.

Bonus Factoids

  • One of the provisions of the Six Acts of 1819 was a ban on people meeting for the purpose of training and drilling in the use of weapons. It was repealed in 2008.
  • An event in far off Indonesia played a role in the Pentrich uprising. In July 1815, Mount Tambora exploded in the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The subsequent ash cloud caused 1816 to be “the summer that never was” and resulted in crop failures in the northern hemisphere. Food shortages brought about extreme hunger, one of the triggers for the rebellious men.

Sources

  • “The Pentrich Rising: England's Forgotten Armed Revolution.” Stephen Bates, BBC History Extra, January 28, 2022.
  • “Social Unrest in Britain 1815-1820.” David Ross, britainexpress.com, undated.
  • “The Pentrich Rising (the Derbyshire Insurrection) 9 June 1817.” Dr. Marjorie Bloy, historyhome.co.uk, undated.
  • “England's Forgotten Armed Uprising to be Celebrated in Derbyshire.” Stephen Bates, The Guardian, June 7, 2017.
  • “1817: The Pentrich Rebellion Leaders.” executedtoday.com, November 7, 2010.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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