Did the gov­ern­ment se­cretly en­cour­age the Pen­trich Ris­ing?

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

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

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 work­ing­class po­lit­i­cal up­ris­ing.

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

“Labour­ing men were tried for trea­son… men who could scarce tell a let­ter in the al­pha­bet”


A con­tem­po­rary illustration de­picts the grue­some fate of Jeremiah Bran­dreth. The leader of the up­ris­ing had tried to es­cape ar­rest be­fore justice caught up with him

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