England’s Last Revolution
Two hundred years ago a small village in Derbyshire became the unlikely setting for an insurrection that would shock the nation
In 1817 England was a country experiencing significant levels of misery and suspicion. Wars with France and the United States had deprived the iron and textile industries of valuable export opportunities, and a recession had led to unemployment and widespread opposition to the government led by Lord Liverpool.
Rural Derbyshire reflected the mood and condition of the country. The lofty ideals of radicals highlighted by the early days of the French Revolution were in direct contrast to the ugly reality of life in the English countryside. A right to liberty and equality sat uneasily with the possibility of imprisonment without trial. “Habeas Corpus”, that fundamental of English Law, had been suspended by a government fearful of insurrection at every turn and with a steely determination to maintain order.
There was some justification for the government’s attitude and policies. William Cobbett was attracting a large readership for his radical pamphlets, and his Political Register regularly sold 50,000 copies a week despite being labelled “Two Penny Trash” by the authorities. In March 1817, Cobbett, who feared that he would be arrested and charged with sedition, fled to the United States.
By the summer of 1817, 10,000 weavers and spinners had been thrown out of work causing great discontent in the areas around Nottingham and Derby. “Hampden Clubs” spread out from London and into the provinces. These provided a vehicle for radical thinkers and the disaffected to air their grievances.
The authorities decided to become pro-active. A number of spies were dispatched from London to find out exactly what threat there was to the government. These men went far beyond merely reporting back their findings, but became agents provocateurs — instrumental in encouraging action.
There was a “Hampden Club” which met at Ripley in Derbyshire and this was attended by a number of men from the nearby villages of South Wingfield and Pentrich. Such activities were being monitored carefully at a time when the government had banned meetings of more than 50 people.
Thomas Bacon, a framework knitter from Pentrich, was an influential figure in the area. He was supported by Isaac Ludlam and William Turner from South Wingfield. A fourth man played a key role in driving forward plans for an uprising — “William Oliver”.
William Oliver was really William J. Richards — an agent provocateur. He was both experienced and successful. In the two weeks prior to the “Pentrich Revolution” he had orchestrated, and scuppered, plots in Sheffield and Dewsbury. Indeed, as early as 23rd May 1817 he had written to the Home Secretary informing him that there would be an uprising in Derbyshire on 9th June!
William Oliver had convinced the Derbyshire revolutionaries that they would be part of a coherent national plan: 70,000 radical sympathisers would take action in London, and Nottingham would already have fallen to a force numbering 100,000.
A few days before the scheduled event Thomas Bacon began to have grave doubts and stepped down. He was replaced as leader by Jeremiah Brandreth, a framework knitter from Sutton-in-ashfield. “The Nottingham Captain”, as Brandreth was known, arrived in Pentrich on 5th June 1817.
Pentrich had been identified as the ideal starting point: not only was it home to many of the conspirators but the Butterley Ironworks was nearby and was seen as a key objective. It was believed that it would provide vital weaponry as well as many more supporters.
Brandreth quickly organised two meetings: the first at Asherfields Barn was followed by a very public gathering at the White Horse Inn — which was situated right in the centre of Pentrich. A significant number of men were prepared to take some “direct” action against the authorities. If any further inducement were needed, Brandreth provided it by his naïve plan to set up a “Provisional Government” in Nottingham. Men who joined in his enterprise were promised bread, ale and 100 guineas upon their successful arrival in the city!
Above: The village sign records the events of 200 years ago and a plaque marks the site of the rebels’ meeting place. Left: Masson Mill in Matlock Bath was built in 1783 and is now a working textile museum. Below: St. Matthew’s Church, Pentrich.