The Age of George III
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After the end of the French Wars, it became increasingly clear that England was suffering from great social, economic and political upheavals. These problems collectively became known as the 'Condition of England Question'. Many of these problems would have occurred eventually but had been speeded up by the effects of the French Wars on the country. Most of the major changes were the direct result of the French Wars. Others came from natural growth and change. The distress and discontent caused by these enormous changes were manifested in a series of events in the period 1811-19. One of these was the Pentrich Rising.
The Pentrich Rising was the 'revolution' for which the government had been waiting. Since the Spa Fields riots in December 1816, Sidmouth, the Home Secretary in Lord Liverpool's government, had been receiving reports from his spies and informers that a revolution was in the making in the north of England. Events such as the march of the Blanketeers, the threats to 'make a Moscow of Manchester' (burn it to the ground) and the Ardwick Bridge Conspiracy were seen as evidence of this. The date of the revolution was changed to suit circumstances.
On 23 May, Sidmouth was informed that an insurrection would take place on 9 June. In March, William Richards had offered his services to the government, promising to gain the confidence of the leading radicals and feed the information he acquired back to the Home Office. Richards is better known as "Oliver the Spy". Oliver was sent north by Sidmouth to encourage the risings by giving promises of support in London.
On 29 May, the Sheffield magistrates raided a secret meeting in the town, which an informer claimed was planning an insurrection for 10 June. The arrest of the Sheffield men threw that storm centre of unrest into confusion; on 6 June a meeting of delegates at Thornhill Lees near Dewsbury was betrayed by Oliver and the men were seized by troops. Oliver moved on to Nottingham on 7 June where he assured his contacts that all was ready for a rising on 8 June and that lavish promises of support from Birmingham and London had been made. The men of Pentrich had no support, apart from a group of weavers from Holmfirth who set out for Huddersfield on the evening of 8 June. After exchanging a few shots with the military, the men escaped into the night. Although two men were arrested and eventually tried, they were acquitted by the jury.
The principal activist in the Nottingham and Pentrich area was the veteran radical Thomas Bacon, who had attended the meeting of Hampden Club delegates in London in January and had been at the Wakefield meeting reported by Oliver. A framework-knitter and ex-iron worker, he provided Oliver's main contact. He was also a travelling delegate between the Midlands, Lancashire, Yorkshire and London. It was Bacon who suggested Pentrich as the base for the rising, possibly because of its proximity to the Butterley ironworks which it was hoped to use for the manufacture of pikes and cannon during the coming insurrection. However, Bacon took no part in the rising. Its actual leader was Jeremiah Brandreth, a 27 year old man who had worked in a number of trades, and had only recently moved into the area. Taking charge a few days before 8 June, he organised support from the area around Pentrich.
On the evening of 8 June between 50 and 300 stockingers, ironworkers and labourers from the villages of Ripley, Pentrich, Alfreton, and South Wingfield gathered and set out to march the fourteen miles to Nottingham, collecting more men and arms on the way. Brandreth assured his followers that Nottingham would already be secured, that 100,000 men from other towns would meet them, and that London would be the next objective. Roast beef, rum and a hundred guineas a man were promised to those who were reluctant. The prospect of ending the National Debt and all taxes and releasing some 'great men' from the Tower were also offered. The men called at farms and houses on the route, demanding arms and support. At one of these farms , Brandreth demanded entrance to a house where it was believed there was a gun, fired through the window and killed a farm servant.
Brandreth led his wet, despondent and dwindling party with determination, repeating rhymes:
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.
According to one of Brandreth's commanders, Brandreth
believed the day and hour were fixed when the whole nation was expected to rise; and before the middle of the week, he believed there would be hundreds of thousands in arms ... there were men appointed all over the nation...
The men assembled at 10 am at Hunt's Barn in Garner's Lane, South Wingfield, to march to Ripley. Recruits from Heage and Belper reinforced the march at Ripley and, by the time it arrived at Codnor with another 70 men from Swanwick, there were well over 400 marchers. On their way to Nottingham, they called at nine or ten houses to collect arms and in one or two cases press-ganged men to join the rebellion. Most were armed simply with sticks with a piece of iron or spikes attached to them. The Government preferred to call them pikes, but the military connotations were rather exaggerated. Most carried hayforks or freshly peeled tree poles studded with nails. In truth the men were very sparsely armed, contrary to the claims in the local paper that the "insurgents from Pentrich possessed themselves of all the guns, and fire arms (in the district) of which they had accurate account, which were found on them".
At some houses, the farmers were forced to provide provisions but not all were reluctant to assist. At Samuel Hunt's farmhouse, bread, cheese and beer were freely given by him to the insurgents. Hunt was to be rewarded with transportation for life for his generosity and involvement. At the Squire's door, violence was threatened, but not carried out, in reprisal for the forthcoming hangings in August. This Squire was Colonel Wingfield Hatton, whose haystacks had been fired in April.
Then the column split into two to cover the area better, aiming to gather further recruits and provisions. Brandreth, William Turner and Isaac Ludlam took one group, while George Weightman and Edward Turner took the other. The most serious incident of the rebellion was about to take place. It was Brandreth's group that visited the home of Mrs Hepworth. Brandreth banged on the door asking for arms, while those inside refused to open up. A few of the rebels went to the rear of the house, where a window was broken, and a random, warning shot was fired inside. The servant, Robert Walters, fell mortally wounded as he bent down. Proof of deliberate murder was never provided, nor was there more than a suspicion that it was Brandreth who fired the shot. Moreover, no one was charged with murder, nor did anyone admit to such a crime. It was enough, however, to blacken the whole column with murderous intentions.
By early morning, the two groups had come together again and had reached Eastwood, some eight miles from Nottingham. There, two magistrates accompanied by twenty fully armed men and Officers of the 15th Light Dragoons, met them. Mundy, one of the magistrates, afterwards described the confrontation: "we came in sight of the mob who though at three quarters of a mile's distance from us no sooner saw the troops, then they fled in all directions...throwing away their arms". Not a single shot was fired and, within a very short space of time, 48 men were captured. Some, however, stayed at large for quite a while. Isaac Ludlam was arrested at Uttoxeter, Brandreth at Bulwell and George Weightman at Eccleston, near Sheffield. Thomas and John Bacon were not caught until the 15th August and then only by virtue of the enormous reward of 100 guineas offered for their betrayal.
In Nottingham, none of the support that had been promised actually materialised, apart from a group of about a hundred who gathered briefly in Nottingham Forest with pikes and poles and who dispersed quietly of their own accord. The Pentrich men fled at the first contact with soldiers and were rounded up during the next few days.
The Pentrich rising had involved only a few hundred men at most, many of them effectively forced into taking part during the night march to Nottingham. Armed with a few guns, home-made pikes, scythes, and pitchforks they killed only one man during the whole episode. The Government, however, decided to make an example of them and forty five were tried for High Treason by Special Commission in Derby in July. Three were hanged, including Brandreth; thirty more were sentenced to transportation, including Bacon.
A prosecution witness against Brandreth and his colleagues gave evidence at the trial:
On the morning of Tuesday 10th I went on the road towards Eastwood, where I met a considerable body of men armed with pikes; I returned to Nottingham and procured some troops from the barracks ... eighteen privates ... and a subaltern officer... . When we got as far as Kimberley, a village about four miles from Nottingham and about two miles short of Eastwood, the people told us that the mob, on hearing of the soldiers coming, had dispersed; we followed the route they had taken, and found a quantity of arms, pikes and guns, scattered about on the road. (State Trials, vol. 32 p.860)
This witness talked about a conversation he had with one of the leaders, before the rising
I asked him what the poor women and children were to do; he said there would be a provisional government formed and sent down into the country to relieve the wives and children of those that were gone away... .
Mr. Cross (for the defence): So that you see these hungry paupers wanted a provisional government to supply them with food ... that was their idea of the alteration they proposed of the government. (State Trials, vol.32 pp.809,878)
The Government s reaction could be interpreted as one of genuine alarm but the sentences were deemed to be excessive. Even more serious for the Government was the exposure of Oliver's role. This gave the Whigs and the radical press another stick with which to beat the Tory administration. Not only could the Government be accused of restricting traditional liberties, but it appeared to be tricking distressed workmen into conspiracy.
Earl Fitzwilliam, the Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire, wrote to Sidmouth about this episode, blaming the spy 'Oliver' for what had happened:
There certainly prevails very generally in the country a strong and decided opinion that most of the events that have recently occurred in the country are to be attributed to the presence and active agitation of Mr. Oliver. He is considered as the main spring from which every movement has taken its rise. All the mischievous in the country have considered themselves as subordinate members of a great leading body of revolutionists in London, as cooperating with that body for one general purpose, and in this view to be under its instructions and directions, communicated by some delegate appointed for the purpose. Had not then a person pretending to come from that body and for that purpose, made his appearance in the country, it is not assuming too much to say that probably no movement whatever would have occurred - it does not follow that a dangerous - spirit could not have been found lurking in any breast, but that that spirit would not have found its way into action. (English Historical Documents, vol. II (1783-1832), A. Aspinall and E.A. Smith (eds) Eyre & Spottismoode, 1959 p.332)
Sidmouth himself wrote in reply to the charge that Oliver had caused the Derbyshire Rising:
The statement is to me incredible but I think it so important as to require immediate and minute investigation. It is directly at variance with the instructions given to Oliver and with his communications to Sir John Byng [the Military commander in the North], as well as to myself... It would have been entirely inconsistent with the instructions given him by Government if he had in any instance fomented or encouraged the disaffected to proceed with greater activity or to greater lengths than they were themselves inclined to do.
Following the Pentrich Rising and other manifestations of discontent, the government passed the Six Acts in 1819 in an attempt to maintain law and order.
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