The Last Revolution in England: The Pentrich Rebellion of 1817 by Regan Walker
On June 9, 1817, a group of village men from Pentrich in Derbyshire rose up in rebellion against the Crown. It was dubbed “the Last Revolution in England,” though it might have more accurately been called a government-inspired provocation to action, designed to justify repression. Why did the villages engage in such a futile action and what happened to them?
After the war with France ended in 1814, England suffered from great social, economic and political problems. Many of the major issues were the direct result of the war, but others were the necessary product of the changes occurring throughout society, some of which had begun earlier. Some had occurred in the few years before with the imposition of the Corn Laws that kept food prices high and the very bad weather that destroyed crops. And machines were replacing workers. The discontent that these occurrences brought, and the distress in the lives of the working people, culminated in the series of events that occurred between 1811-1819, including the Pentrich Rebellion in 1817.
The uprising of the common people in the Midlands in 1817 was just what the leaders of the British government needed to justify sending a strong signal to the masses that no rebellion, such as occurred in France, would be tolerated in England. The hundreds of villagers who rose up with the pikes and crude weapons (though a few had pistols) to march to Nottingham (with view toward reaching London) were ignorant of the true facts—that the government itself had stirred their rebellion. In truth, they fought “against the wind,” wherefrom I took the title for my Regency romance that features this little known event in England’s history.
The year 1817 began with a rally held in London in January, perhaps inspired by the Hampden Clubs, political clubs that advocated the vote for all men. The mood of the masses was rebellious and ended with stones thrown at the Prince Regent’s carriage as he left Parliament. While the Prince wasn’t harmed, with memories of the French Revolution still vivid in their minds, and the political clubs becoming more and more popular, especially in the Midlands and the North, the House of Lords adopted a spate of laws designed to control the stirrings of rebellion. The government suspended Habeas Corpus, and passed the infamous Gagging Acts. All public meetings were forbidden, except under license from local magistrates. Pubs and coffee houses, as especially notorious places for radical gatherings, were covered by the Acts, as were all public places. Sedition, that is to say opposition to the government, whether by speech or written word, was severely punished.
Of special concern to the authorities were the political writings of William Cobbett and his journal the Political Register. Cobbett wrote in a conversational style, and as most workers could not read, crowds would gather in meeting places to hear public readings of the radical newspapers.
In March, there was a protest by thousands of depressed Manchester workers. With a view to descending on London to petition the Prince Regent to do something to relieve their economic depression, they marched peacefully carrying blankets to sleep in. Thus, it became known as the March of the Blanketeers. It rained violently on the day the march began. As five hundred of the men marched towards Derby, they found the Hanging Bridge over the River Dove at Ashbourne occupied by masses of troops who were expecting an army of 30,000 rebels. Most of the Blanketeers were turned away, but twenty-five were arrested. Only a few got to Derby and only one marcher reached London to present his petition. However, the Manchester expression of discontent served to keep alive the government’s fear of revolution.
Concerned about the growing unrest, Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary sent spies throughout England, including the Midlands, to keep watch on the centers of discontent. Since these spies were informers paid by results, they quickly became agents provocateur, stirring rebellion where there was none so they would be paid. Among the spies was one William Richards, better known as William Oliver, or “Oliver the spy,” who incited open rebellion in the Midlands.
Oliver traveled to Pentrich in Derbyshire, disguised as a depressed worker (he had previously been in Fleet Prison), and encouraged the villagers to armed rebellion. He assured them there were thousands in London ready to join them in rising against the Crown. The villagers, in their ignorance, believed him. They were simple men who thought they were joining a great cause for democracy where every man would have a vote. They would soon learn they were wrong. At the same time that Oliver was making arrangements with the villagers for an armed march to air their discontent, he informed the local militia of the planned uprising, even giving them the date. Because of Oliver’s lies, the hundreds who marched on that rainy night in June had no idea they stood not a chance of accomplishing their objective. When the dawn came, the men faced a regiment of the King’s Own Dragoons and were soon scattered or captured.
Years after the events, in a letter written in 1831, Lord Melbourne, a former Home Secretary, recalled that there was “much reason to suspect that the rising in Derbyshire…was stimulated, if not produced, by the artifices of Oliver, a spy employed by the Government of that day.”
Notwithstanding the circumstances of the uprising and the involvement of the British government, the powers in London decided to make an example of the rebels. Forty-five men were tried for high treason by Special Commission. Three were hanged, including Jeremiah Brandreth, Isaac Ludlam and William Turner, the “ringleaders”—all characters in my novel. Fourteen were sentenced to transportation to Australia.
In examining the causes for the uprising in the Midlands, one cannot discount that the people had been through much hardship, and by 1817, were hungry and tired of laws and taxes imposed by a nobility that had little understanding of their needs. We, who enjoy democracy, might say their desire to rise against such hardship was not unreasonable. The motive of the government, of course, was to crush the yearnings for democracy and the vote that were so strong among the common people, and to prevent a revolution like the one that occurred in France.
Article contributed by Regan Walker, http://www.reganwalkerauthor.com.