The men of the Derbyshire village of Pentrich formed themselves into an armed force in 1817 and marched towards Nottingham expecting to be part of a national uprising to overthrow the government. The main reason for their action was anger and despair at the lack of work, lack of food and the apparent indifference of the government and local authorities to their ever more desperate plight .
Why was there an uprising at this time and why did the “Regenerators” of Pentrich think they were taking part in a national revolution? The reasons are complex, but some factors may be summarised as follows:
The leadership and activities of influential radical leaders.
There was a new mood among radical thinkers fired by events in America and France. The ideas of philosophers such as Rousseau (“Discourse on the Origins of Inequality"  and “Social Contract”  ), and the dissemination of their ideas through the work of “pamphleteers” such as Tom Paine, meant that there was a ferment of radical ideas surging among the working population. Some wanted all out revolution, while others believed that a reform of the voting system would be sufficient to bring about major changes. Sir Francis Burdett MP attempted to push for voting reform, but with no success. Of the 558 members of parliament, most of them represented electorates of under 500 people. Major industrial towns such as Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds had no MPs at all. The government argued that an MP was not “the agent of the place that chose him, but of the whole community.”
Political clubs flourished throughout the country, many of them set up as “Hampden” clubs by the radical Major John Cartwright. In January 1817 a major rally was called at the Crown and Anchor public house in The Strand, London. Though half a million signatures had been gathered for a petition on voting reform, the rally was not a success as the leaders could not agree among themselves. Burdett backed out from taking the petition to government, nevertheless Admiral Lord Cochrane delivered it. Unfortunately stones were thrown by the mob at the Prince Regent’s carriage as he drove from the Houses of Parliament, behaviour that did not encourage the government to view the petition favourably!
Unrest continued to grow and in some parts of the Midlands. Every village had a club where meetings ended with revolutionary songs following speeches which were “destructive of the social order, recommending the equalisation of property.” (Report of a House of Lord’s committee of enquiry.) A reform meeting at Clerkenwell ended in a riot and a man shot. Secret meetings were called at Methodist meeting rooms, private houses and in isolated country barns. Public shows of discontent, such as the “Blanketeers” failed march from Manchester to London, were frequent. (The Blanketters carried blankets to keep them warm on the journey.) Revolution was in the air, but the leaders were far from united. Cartwright was very old, Burdett did not trust his fellow radical “Orator” Henry Hunt and soon sailed with Cobbett to America to avoid arrest.
The Luddite movement in Yorkshire and the Midlands (an attempt to destroy the new factory machines which were decimating cottage industries) had schooled men in organisational and leadership skills so that local leaders were well able to control and manage revolutionary groups. (Jeremiah Brandreth was typical of these.)
Much of the legislation at this time caused great resentment.
Suspension of Habeus Corpus
Alarmed at the growing unrest, the government passed legislation in 1817 suspending “Habeus Corpus” which thereby allowed the government to detain political opponents without trial, they also curtailed the freedom of the press, and decreed that any meeting of fifty or more people without the consent of the Lord Lieutenant of the region could incur the death penalty for those taking part.
The Corn Laws. (1815)
During the war with France British farmers prospered as a result of favourable long term leasing arrangements and the profitable development of heavy clay lands for the cultivation of grain. With the end of the war fluctuating prices led to leasing arrangements becoming shorter and less advantageous. There was also a threat of cheap imported grain. Protests to parliament from farmers (“No set of men cry so loud or so soon as farmers” James Loch 1814) led to the enactment of The Corn Laws which were designed to keep out foreign grain and keep up prices to the consumer. Imported grain was prohibited if the price of domestic grain fell below £4 per quarter ton. The effect was to make the cost of bread prohibitive to the general population.
Abolition of Income Tax.
In the last year of the war with France Prime Minister Liverpool faced an expenditure of 45% over income. The difference was made up by borrowings costing £30m. per year. After the war the “country gentlemen” were no longer willing to pay income tax to finance the government and complaints to parliament from landowners and farmers led to the abolition of income tax in 1816. This led to further expensive government borrowing and a greater burden of “indirect taxes” on the general population who were already struggling with rising prices, unemployment and poor wages.
Other factors leading to unrest.
Bad harvests and rising food prices – In 1816 the weather was cold and wet. Crops were badly affected and insufficient corn was produced to feed the population.
The Industrial Revolution – the demand for long established home-based crafts had dwindled away as the result of the new factories. This caused a drift of population from rural into industrial areas and many of an ever growing population were obliged to accept badly paid semi-skilled factory work.
Post War Problems – The demand for armaments ceased, which put pressure on the massive ironworks businesses who in turn reduced their need for coal. Some 300,00 soldiers and sailors returning from the wars found that work was almost unobtainable. Many banks failed and great trading companies went bankrupt. Around a third of the working population were thrown out of employment and became paupers thereby putting strain on the uneven and often inadequate “Parish Relief”.
Post war depression – there was a loss of exports as a result of competition from continental markets.
Effects of the French Revolution – The government feared that revolutionary principles could lead to violence as witnessed in France at the height of the revolution. They reacted with severely repressive legislation.
Unpopular royalty – The Prince Regent’s extravagant lifestyle was highly unpopular with the people.
Why did the “revolution” fail?
Lack of co-ordinated leadership.
Lack of will of the people.
Government control of the situation as a result of a network of spies which ensured that all revolutionary activity was known and action taken before any serious situation could develop. ( Note the very high number of treason trials reported in newspapers of the period.)
Why did the Pentrich men march?
The men themselves said that they were misled by the spy William Oliver. Whether he acted as an argent provocateur or whether the failure of communications between the revolutionary groups caused the Pentrich men to march to their downfall is open to question. Much has been written on the subject, but proof one way or another remains very elusive.
DO PLEASE READ the play BRANDRETH which gives a narrative account of the uprising using material from many documents, letters and other information sources of the period. The LETTERS FROM AUSTRALIA give a vivid account of what life was like for the Pentrich rebels sent to Australia as convicts.
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