In 2006 I graduated from Nottingham Trent University with a degree in History. I chose to research the so-called ‘Pentrich Revolution’ as it was local to me and I’d looked at it previously when I was at school.
As it’s the 200th anniversary of this event today I thought I’d tweak my dissertation introduction and publish it on my blog.
To give a bit of context – The years preceding 1817 were becoming increasingly tense. Nottingham had seen the beginnings of machine-breaking riots known as Luddite Riots in 1811. The Luddites were hosiery & textile workers who saw new factory machinery as being responsible for the drop in textile prices thereby reducing their income and putting some out of work altogether. Factories were attacked and machinery broken up with sledgehammers. The Government, already nervous about working class rebellion following the French revolution, responded by making machine breaking punishable by death. The movement spread to Yorkshire and Lancashire but was all but over by 1813 although the economic distress for the framework knitters continued.
A rise in political awareness can also be seen in this period. The Hampden Clubs, founded by Major John Cartwright as a base for petitioning for a fairer voting franchise, were becoming very popular amongst the working class and had developed into a countrywide network, causing more concern for the Government. A Club meeting at Spa Fields Clerkenwell ended in a riot in November 1816 which led to the Government clamping down further, suspending the Habeas Corpus Act, which mean that any person considered to be seditious could now be held indefinitely without trial. This forced the Clubs underground and the meetings continued. They spread the idea that working class distress was not purely down to new machinery, but was caused and could be alleviated by, the political process; a switch away from machine breaking to attacking the Government & its policies.
Food prices were also causing major hardship in both urban and rural areas. This had led to countrywide rioting in the two years preceding the Pentrich uprising and was exacerbated by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. This remains the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. It led to a cold, wet summer across Europe which had a catastrophic effect on crops, pushing prices up even further.
The Pentrich Revolution
… to go a revolutioning …
Friday, 7th November 1817 saw Friar Gate, in Derby, crowded with up to six thousand people in anticipation of the execution of three men; Jeremiah Brandreth, Isaac Ludlam and William Turner. Found guilty of High Treason, their sentence was to be hung, drawn and quartered; later reduced to hanging and beheading. The executions the Derby crowd witnessed that day were the result of the ‘Pentrich Revolution’ or uprising, of 9th June 1817, which saw approximately three hundred men leave their homes in Pentrich, Derbyshire, with the intention of marching to London to overthrow the Government.
The origin of the uprising can be found in the Hampden Club delegates, particularly Thomas Bacon; the founder of the Pentrich and Ripley branches. A Pentrich man, Bacon had been a well known local leader for some years, working as both a frame-work knitter and an iron-dresser at the local Butterley Iron Works. Known to many as “Old Tommy” or “the old man”, he was aged approximately sixty-five. He was well known by the authorities, having been: ‘at the head of a Luddite party in Pentrich and Swanwick which did considerable mischief in those places.’ As a delegate, Bacon travelled to the Hampden Club rally at the Crown and Anchor in London in January 1817. He was also a frequent visitor to club meetings in Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester, Sheffield and Wakefield. By May 1817, he was chairing meetings at Asherfields Barn in Pentrich; organising the uprising and discussing how they would proceed. Following a trip to Nottingham on the 5th June, Bacon returned with the man he said would lead the march from Pentrich; Jeremiah Brandreth. Bacon himself did not take part in the march.
Brandreth, aged approximately thirty, was a married framework knitter, out of work due to his speciality, the Derby rib, being out of fashion. He and his family had been moved from Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire to Wilford, his birthplace, in Nottingham under the Poor Law Act in September 1812. Brandreth’s epithet, “The Nottingham Captain” may originate either from his previous military service past Luddite connections.
On the 8th June, a meeting was held at The White Horse Inn, Pentrich, in which: ‘there was a general conference as to what proceedings were to be taken for the over- turning of the Government.’ The marchers were to go to Nottingham first, which would already have been taken by the revolutionaries there; they would then march onto London to form a new Government. Brandreth produced a map, and his “battle song:”
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 has come you plainly see,
The Government opposed must be.
Present at the meeting were William Turner, Isaac Ludlam and George Weightman, who were also to face trial with Brandreth in October as leaders of the rising. Bacon was notable by his absence. Brandreth: ‘had heard there was a warrant out against Bacon on the account of the insurrection and that Bacon was aware of it.’ So Bacon had gone into hiding: ‘in James Booth’s hovel,’ to avoid arrest, and took no further part.
Also present at the meeting were Shirley Asbury and Anthony Martin, local men acting as special constables. The meeting was quite unguarded even after the constables were discovered to be there:
(Martin) was there listening to the discourse – they spoke openly. He told them to mind, there were constables in the room and they threatened to put him up the chimney. Nobody called him a spy, nor did they object to his company.
But the authorities already knew about the planned insurrection thanks to a network of informers including Henry Sampson in Nottingham and Thomas Bradley in Sheffield. Nottingham’s town clerk, Henry Enfield, already had local troops on alert after receiving reports from Sampson. Constables Asbury and Martin were among over one hundred men sworn in as special constables in Ripley market place as the authorities responded to the information received from local informers.
The most notorious of the informers however, was William Oliver, who came to be known as “Oliver the Spy.” He was recently out of debtors’ prison and had written to Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, requesting work as an agent. Once engaged, Oliver travelled the country, infiltrating various Hampden clubs and radical meetings. Though he did not visit Pentrich itself, he did have contact with Bacon and possibly with Brandreth though this has not been ascertained with any certainty.
On the night of 9th June, the marchers, led by Brandreth gathered at Hunt’s Barn, near South Wingfield. A few were carrying pistols, but most were armed with homemade weapons such as: ‘old files or chisels sharpened and attached to handles of considerable length.’ The men went from house to house to gather more men and arms, with varying success. Some were keen to go, such as Samuel Hunt who; ‘brought out bread and cheese and told them to eat what they liked and he would dress and go with them,’ while others were much less so, such as Elijah Hall Jnr. whom Brandreth: ‘brought down (stairs) with him and forced him to accompany them. He went very unwillingly.’ By this time, Weightman had already left for Nottingham ahead of the others on a horse “borrowed” from William Booth, in order to check on the progress of any rising there.
Their visit to Mary Hepworth’s house saw the only fatality of the march, her servant, Robert Walters: ‘was sitting upon a chair opposite the window, apparently lacing his boots at the time of the firing: he was wounded in the neck.’ Brandreth was apparently responsible for the shooting, but was never charged.
As well as recruiting from local houses, it was also the intention to take possession of the Butterley Iron Works in Ripley, obtaining both men and arms. Already well behind schedule they arrived at the Butterley works at 3am, the time by which they were expected in Nottingham. George Goodwin, the Butterley manager, approached the men he knew and: ‘went out amongst them and expostulated with them and pushing them round by the shoulder bid them get home or they would all get hanged.’ Three of the younger marchers deserted, hiding in Goodwin’s office, upon which Brandreth gave the order to march and led his men away.
The insurrectionists continued on to Codnor, calling at more houses on the way, with more threats of violence. Once at Codnor, they called at three pubs; The Glass House, The French Horn and the New Inn, running up a bill at each and refusing to pay. When faced with his bill at The Glass House, Brandreth said: ‘if we offer you a Bank of England bill it will be of no use now.’ Heading on to Langley Mill, in the now pouring rain many of the forced marchers were deserting. Those who had gathered at the very beginning of the march had already travelled around twelve miles. At this point Weightman reappeared and told Brandreth and the group to: ‘push on lads, they are all safe in Nottingham, the town’s taken and the soldiers dare not come out of the Barracks.’ The group, now diminished by two-thirds, stopped at The Junction Navigation Inn in Langley Mill, once again ordering beer and leaving without paying. After marching up to Eastwood, with yet more men deserting, there was a further stop at The Sun for more beer.
The march ended just outside Kimberley on the outskirts of Nottingham by the Gilt Brook, where the remaining marchers fled at the sight of the local magistrates accompanied by Captain Frederick Philipson and his 15th Regiment of Light Dragoons. There were only eighteen mounted soldiers, but it was enough to cause panic amongst the marchers and they fled, throwing down their arms.
Approximately forty of the insurrectionists were captured in the following twenty-four hours, with more following in later days, filling both Derby and Nottingham gaols. The ringleaders including Bacon were apprehended later; Brandreth after a reward was offered for his capture. Imprisoned in Derby gaol, they were charged with High Treason, and the trial date was set for October.
Responsible for the prosecution of the prisoners was the Derby solicitor William Jeffrey Lockett, while the two lawyers for the defence were John Cross and Thomas Denman. The trial was arranged so Brandreth was tried alone first, followed by Turner, Ludlam and Weightman. Denman intended to prove that the uprising was merely a riot, but when Brandreth was found guilty, Denman’s defence of the others placed more emphasis on the influence of Brandreth on the mob.
There was no mention of Oliver at the trial other than veiled references to him by the defence. His tour of the northern Hampden Clubs had brought him into contact with many of those discussing a general rising, most notably Thomas Bacon. By the time of the trial Oliver’s role as an informer had been exposed in the Leeds Mercury by Edward Baines, in an article that not only revealed his role as an informer but also denounced him as an agent provocateur. This caused widespread condemnation, a debate in the House of Commons and subsequently led to the collapse of two trials as the jury were reluctant to convict on the evidence of informers. Anxious to avoid a similar collapse in Derby, the prosecution made no reference to Oliver, concentrating on events after the 8th June, when Oliver was already back in London.
Brandreth, Ludlam, Turner and Weightman were all found guilty and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. However, the sentence was later commuted to hanging until dead and then beheading, and for Weightman it was commuted to transportation for life. A further nineteen prisoners, including Bacon, changed their pleas to guilty and were sentenced to either transportation or imprisonment. The remaining twelve, including Ludlam’s sons, Isaac and William, were released, as the prosecution declined to offer any evidence against them. 
On the day of execution, each prisoner was dragged around the prison yard on a hurdle, and then taken to the scaffold. As was custom, the men were permitted to speak. Brandreth exclaimed; ‘God be with you all and Lord Castlereagh,’ though some witnesses suggest he said: ‘and all but Lord Castlereagh,’ which is more probable. Ludlam added; ‘I pray God bless you all – and the King upon his throne.’ But Turner cried: ‘this is all Oliver and the Government, the Lord have mercy on my soul.’ There is some suggestion that the chaplain Reverend Pickering prevented any further controversial remarks by moving in front of Turner. Following the executions they were buried in an unmarked corner of St. Werburgh’s churchyard, Derby.
Following the trial, many of those involved in the march, despite being reprieved, found themselves evicted by the Duke of Devonshire’s agent, or their rents increased to a level they could no longer afford. Ann Weightman lost her licence and was evicted from the White Horse, which was then demolished. The 1821 Census return notes: ‘The population has decreased by one-third in the Township of Pentrich since 1811; which is said to be owing to the insurrection which took place there in 1817, in consequence of which the Duke of Devonshire’s agents destroyed many of the houses.’