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

This England - - Contents - Glyn Jones

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.

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