Two hundred years ago this month, a group of poor men desperate to feed their families took decisive if impulsive action aimed at overthrowing the government and ending poverty.
At the time England’s economy was in a dire state: bad harvests had led to famine and fewer workers were needed because of the Industrial Revolution. Working-class people could not afford a loaf of bread; something had to change.
In the six years before 1817 there had been food riots in many cities and minor uprisings in the north of the country. A number of secret revolutionary committees were set up including one in Nottingham. Several meetings were held in the Derbyshire village of Pentrich and activists were told that preparations for a rebellion were well advanced.
At the forefront of the Pentrich Rising were Jeremiah Brandreth, a 31-year-old unemployed stocking knitter who had a wife and two children; Isaac Ludlam, a bankrupt farmer who owned a small quarry where he had built up a small supply of pikes; and William Turner, a stonemason and ex-soldier.
Brandreth had been born in Holborn, London in June 1785. His family moved to Devon and later Jeremiah went to live in Sutton-in-Ashfield where he got married and had three children.
Known as the Nottingham Captain, he was thought to have been involved in Luddite activities – Luddites were a group of textile workers and weavers who destroyed machinery in protest at its use to get around standard labour practices.
On Sunday 8 June 1817, Brandreth spoke at a crowded meeting in the White Horse Inn in Pentrich. He said every man “must turn out and fight for bread. The time is come you plainly see, the government opposed must be.”
The rebels assembled the following day at Hunt’s Barn in Garner’s Lane, South Wingfield to march to Ripley. By the time they reached Codnor, more than 400 insurgents had gathered.
They set off for Nottingham, on the way calling at houses to collect arms and encouraging more men to join the rebellion. Most of them though had only sticks with a piece of iron or spikes attached as their weapons.
At one point the marchers split into two so that they could gather more recruits and provisions. Brandreth, Turner and Ludlam took one group and visited the home of a Mrs Hepworth. Brandreth banged on the door and asked for arms but no one opened the door. A few of the rebels went to the rear of the house where a window was broken and a warning shot was fired.
A servant, Robert Walters, fell down dead. No one was charged with murder but it was enough to blacken the marchers’ names.
By early morning the two groups joined up again and reached Giltbrook. There they were met by a small force of soldiers. The rebels fled and the soldiers did not fire a single shot.
Soon 48 men were captured. Brandreth was arrested at Bulwell and Ludlam at Uttoxeter.
So why did the uprising fail so quickly and so ingloriously? The government wanted to quell any proposed revolution and set up a network of spies and agent provocateurs. One of them was William Oliver, also known as Oliver the Spy.
He claimed 70,000 men were planning an armed uprising in London and asked Brandreth to persuade local people to join the rebellion. Oliver the Spy did his job well and was paid handsomely.
Brandreth was sentenced to death, along with Turner and Ludlam, for treason. They were hanged at Derby gaol on 7 November, their heads being severed before they were taken to St Werburgh’s church for burial. Fourteen others were sentenced to transportation to Australia. Twenty were jailed.
Would the uprising have succeeded if it had not been for Oliver the Spy? Patrick Cook from the Pentrich and South Wingfield Revolution Group does not think so.
“They were so ill-equipped and so poorly led. They would possibly have got as far as Nottingham – they certainly wouldn’t have got to London.
“The trial was rigged: it had gentrified landowners on the jury and no one of the men’s class or even middle class.
“It was one of the many risings at that time but it was the one where the government decided to act and take retribution by having their own spy who made sure that the rising did take place.
“The government also made sure that the trial didn’t collapse, as had happened in other areas such as Huddersfield. So there was no mention of Oliver at the (Brandreth) trial and there was no mention of Lord Sidmouth the Home Secretary having agents. Essentially there was a miscarriage of justice.”
So England’s last revolution, a half-hearted but passionate attempt to give the working-class man a voice, was snubbed out and with it ended the lives of three men who campaigned for a fairer society.
Outside Derbyshire the tale of the Pentrich Rising may not be widely known but its purpose and significance should never be forgotten.
Derby-based Big Adventures Theatre Company is celebrating its 20th anniversary by staging The Last Revolution, a community musical about the Pentrich Rising. About 45 people will appear in the production. The youngest is 12; most of the actors are aged between 18 and 70.
Dave Culling and Caroline Reader formed the company after graduating from Bretton Hall, a college specialising in the performance arts, in Yorkshire. Caroline has written the script for The Last Revolution while Dave has written 16 songs for the show.
“It’s been challenging,” says Dave. “We’re trying to be as true to the story as we can. Attracting enough men was a problem. It’s a man-centric story, so we’re focusing on the inter-personal relationships.
“Think of it as Derbyshire’s answer to Les Miserables and you’re on the right track.”
Big Adventures will perform The Last Revolution in the Craft Village at Markeaton Park from Friday until Sunday, 23 to 25 June. The company will stage excerpts from the musical at a commemorative event at South Wingfield Social Club on Saturday 10 June.
The Pentrich and South Wingfield Revolution Group is organising a re-enactment walk following the full route of the rebels’ march to Giltbrook. It will take place on Sunday 4 June.
The principal festival to mark the bicentenary will be the Commemorative Event at South Wingfield Social Club on Saturday 10 June.
A walk starting at Heanor will be held on Tuesday 13 June which will include a talk by Michael Parkin, author of the book 1817: A Recipe For Revolution.
A fireworks display to commemorate the executions of Jeremiah Brandreth, Isaac Ludham and William Turner will take place at the Village Inn, Marehay on Tuesday 7 November. Derby Museums are exploring the causes, events and legacy of the Pentrich Rising with an exhibition which is on at Pickford’s House, Friargate, until 9 September.