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The Bicentenary 1817 - 2017

The History of the Pentrich Revolution - The Revolution /contd

The Retribution

The establishment now proceeded to extract retribution; it would be vindictive and effective. Within two weeks of the event it was announced that: "Ann Weightman, widow, who has kept the White Horse public house at Pentridge for several years, was convicted...of having permitted seditious meetings and, in particular, a meeting on Sunday, 8th instant", when Brandreth had called upon the men to join the rising. In consequence, her licence to sell ale was revoked, thus depriving her of her livelihood. In a similar move, the Duke of Devonshire announced a strict inquiry into the tenancies of any men involved in the insurrection.

More serious would be the punishment meted out to the leaders, all of the prisoners were isolated until the time of their trial in Derby; their relatives sold everything, down to their beds, to provide funds for their defence and a committee was formed in London to campaign for their release. 46 men of Pentrich, South Wingfield, Alfreton and Heanor, were indicted at the Derby Assizes on 26th July 1817 as having committed High Treason, along with "a multitude of false traitors, ...500 or more". The overwhelming majority of those on trial were labourers and framework knitters, but there was one each of a farmer, tailor, blacksmith and sawyer. There were also two stonemasons. Fully eleven of those charged were still not caught by February of the next year.

A Special Commission of four judges had 35 of those charged before them on 16th October 1817 at Derby. A full trial, lasting ten days, ensued, before a jury packed with rich farmers. The prosecution had deliberately held over the trial to October, until after the harvest, so that such a jury would be available.

Each group of defendants faced a different jury, but the first business was the calling of a Grand Jury that had to decide if there was sufficient evidence for a case to be answered. The composition of the Grand Jury, double normal size, gave new meaning to the phrase `jury by peers'! For it was comprised of the cream of Derbyshire's ruling class: - nobility, rich farmers and textile tycoons crammed the jurors' seats.

The indictment left nothing to chance for it was several pages long. The main thrust of it was that the prisoners did: "with force and arms at the parish of South Wingfield aforesaid, in the county of Derby aforesaid, maliciously and traitorously amongst themselves, and together with divers other false traitors, whose names are to the said jurors unknown, did compass, imagine, invent, devise, and intend to levy war against our said Lord the King, within this realm, in order by forces and constraint to compel him to change his measures and counsels, and the said last-mentioned compassing imagination, invention, device and intention did then and there express, utter and declare, by divers overt acts and deeds hereinafter mentioned, that is to say, in order to fulfill, perfect and bring to effect, their most evil and wicked treason and treasonable compassing, imagination, invention, device and intention last aforesaid, That's to say, by force of arms they intended to wage war against the King to get him to change his policy to one they agreed with!

The prosecution held Oliver the spy, the instigator of it all, in reserve in Derby, well out of sight. All they had to do was to prove the insurrection occurred and that the prisoners were part of it. The defence, meanwhile, ineptly argued that Brandreth was misled and duped! Defence lawyer, Cross, put it like this: "I cannot help one of the most malignant and diabolical publications ever issued from the English is entitled - `An address to the Journeymen and Labourers'".

Not that their defence was extremely unsympathetic to the plight of the rebels; he drew attention to the evidence of Thomas Turner, a state witness, who said nothing of the indictment's claim that the insurgents aimed to overturn the Government. "At Elijah Hall's (the) men told him they wanted a bigger loaf and better times for the framework knitters, and if this were high treason he feared that there were many persons in that hall guilty of the crime".

But why clutch at straws like this, when there was hard defensive evidence? Brandreth's solicitor took a statement from him before the trial, not used by him, but which clearly identified Oliver's role. In this, Brandreth explains the Three Salmon's meeting, attended by Oliver, where he claimed that the entire country was ready to rise. Oliver said, "he could raise 70,000 men in London...(but)...the people in London would not be satisfied unless Nottingham was perfectly secured" to safeguard the passage over the Trent for the supposed northern forces.

Moreover, everyone seemed to know about Oliver's doings. Joseph Strutt, a well-to-do local liberal, wrote in a private letter to his uncle, Lord Belper, that many wondered how it was that nothing of Oliver came out in the trial, but such was the cunning of the prosecution that, "not a single witness was brought forward against the prisoners who had ever had anything to do with Oliver. The prosecution commenced by the examination of men who had been at a meeting only the night before the rising took place, and after Oliver had left them, so that anything which took place before that time would not have been admitted as evidence".

The Government had learned from previous cases that the evidence of a spy tended not to help the prosecution, for there is an almost natural aversion of people to the sneak. Moreover, if evidence is secured by devious and lying means, how could any jury be sure that the evidence was really sound? It was essential that a death sentence was reached, at least in the case of the leaders, to place on record a warning to the radical movement.

There was another clever sidestepping manoeuvre on the part of the Crown; Brandreth was taken as the main culprit, and not Bacon who was, in reality, the leading radical in Pentrich. There was good reason for this move, for Bacon had set it all up, in good faith, with Oliver. To accept Bacon as the leader would mean providing him with an opportunity to mention Oliver. Bacon was induced to plead guilty in return for sparing his life and Brandreth's case was taken first. Bacon later wrote: "When I was first in prison some magistrates came, I offered to tell (them of) the affair, but Mr Lockett, the prosecutor, discharged me from speaking one word. I was the first man in the indictment, it was the King against Thomas Bacon and others. My trial was supposed to come on...first".

Political dissidents had chalked up the slogan "JURYMEN REMEMBER OLIVER!", somewhat in vain, on the walls of Derby before the trial. But Oliver's part did not come out in the trial and Brandreth was found guilty on Saturday, 18th October, after only twenty-five minutes consideration. William Turner's trial started on Monday and in turn he, Isaac Ludlam and George Weightman were all found guilty, after much the same evidence. Turner's jury was out for fifteen minutes, Ludlam's for only ten. In mitigation for Weightman, Cross argued that he was "led by delusion into a riotous assemblage... (he) ...was incapable of committing any outrageous act". The jury of ten farmers, one miller and one master cotton spinner were not especially moved.

While the greater part of the other prisoners were either released or condemned to transportation, the capital sentence of high treason was pronounced on Brandreth, Turner and Ludlam. The judge made their offence clear: - "Your object was to wade through the blood of your countrymen; to extinguish the Laws and Constitution of the country, and to substitute for the liberty of your fellow subjects - anarchy". Nine prisoners followed who had pleaded not guilty originally, but who had now changed their plea to guilty. Ten pleaded guilty outright and these were formally sentenced to death, commuted to transportation and gaol. The Attorney General offered no evidence against twelve, mainly young relatives of the principals. The Chief Baron, in acquitting them, said that while he might have been pronouncing death he believed that by "taught will lead more correct lives... (as) have been misled by others". Of those that pleaded not guilty, eleven were pardoned from death and transported for life, three for fourteen years and others were imprisoned - one for two years, two for one year and three for six months.

Brandreth and his colleagues waited for their deaths. A fruitless campaign to save them was waged, for the Prince Regent believed himself to be acting magnanimously in response to a plea for clemency by remitting the quartering - they were only to be hanged and decapitated.

Certainly Brandreth was outraged at the role of Oliver. Joseph Strutt wrote to his uncle, "Mr Wragg, the solicitor of the prisoners, was refused admittance to see Brandreth on Sunday last, and Lockett (not with his usual cunning) let out that he was afraid of Wragg seeing him, for that he (Brandreth) had ever since his condemnation talked of nothing else but Oliver, and that he was a murderer, etc., I hope he will speak and tell all that he knows when on the scaffold."

Brandreth was a family man, with a girl of four years of age and a boy of one year. His wife, Anne, was pregnant and, being penniless, had to walk the whole way (around fifteen miles) from Sutton in Ashfield to Derby, arriving on Wednesday, 29th October, to say farewell to her husband.  Brandreth’s last letter to Anne was written on the Friday morning. He left word for some money to be given to her. Finishing the letter, he sounded calm, "my dearly beloved wife this is the last correspondence I can have with you. So you will make yourself easy as you possibly can". Signing off as "your most affectionate husband", Brandreth says "adieu, adieu, to all for ever".

Strutt revealed that crowds of people flocked into Derby to see the execution "and the horseguards are parading our streets", he warned. Indeed, the militia were very much afraid that a last minute attempt to rescue the three men would be made. A great force of cavalry, armed with drawn sabres, surrounded the scaffold. Several companies of infantry were also present, all to ensure that the crowds did not interfere with the judicial killings. Thousands were assembled in Friar Gate when Brandreth, Turner and Ludlam were brought out at 12 noon. Brandreth walked with a firm step to the scaffold and said to all "God be with you all and health to Lord Castlereagh". The rope was put around his neck and Turner was brought next, to say: "This is all old Oliver and the Government". Ludlam, a Methodist preacher, merely addressed a prayer to the people. But no sign of repentance was shown by any of the condemned, despite much pressure to do so.

Cobbett, in a personal letter to Henry Hunt written from America on 6th February 1818 (lodged in Derby local studies library), relates how much anxiety and manoeuvring was shown by the authorities, all designed to prevent the men speaking the truth on the scaffold. His explanation for this was that the authorities wanted the three to specifically mention himself, Hunt, as responsible, to provide an excuse to move against the leadership of the radical movement.

The Executions

Hanged and BeheadedThe men were dropped from the trap to hang for half an hour. Hanging in those days did not instantly break the neck, but slowly strangled the victim to death. The men were lifted, eventually, to have their heads severed - the job was done ham-fistedly on all of them, for the executioner obviously unused to the task, could not sever the head from the body with the axe and had to cut it off with a knife. Bear in mind that the thirty minutes strangulation might not have killed the men. Finally, the executioner held Brandreth's head up by the hair saying: "This is the head of Jeremiah Brandreth, a traitor". Three times, Strutt relates, "there was a general expression of dissatisfaction by groans and hisses etc., The whole affair created a great sense of indignation amongst the local population, the events, Strutt thought, were "horrifying to the feelings of those who have a spark of liberty".

The Head of Jeremiah Brandreth, or the `Nottingham Captain'Percy Byshe Shelley, the poet, wrote a bitterly sharp pamphlet after he read of the execution and the death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte, only daughter of the Prince Regent, in the same newspaper. The latter event was dwelt on with all solemnity as a national tragedy, the former seemed to Shelley to be the real calamity. Contrasting the private grief associated with the death of an amiable young lady with the bloody brutality of the slaying of the Pentrich Three, Shelley followed them to the grave in imagination. Conjuring up the tempo of a funeral march in his sentences, it was not the funeral of three men he saw in his mind's eye, but that of British liberty. The realism of this poetic licence has in the past caused some to believe quite erroneously that Shelley was actually present at the execution, but this was not so.

Thus, a framework knitter, a quarryman and a stonemason were `privileged' to be the last recipients of such a punishment in the provinces. All three coffins were buried in one deep, unmarked grave in St Werburgh's churchyard, not far from the place of execution. It is unarguably a location worthy of some lasting memorial to three martyrs in the long fight for democracy in Britain, but sadly, to Derby's shame, there is none.

The Transportations

As for those rebels left facing punishment, ten of fourteen prisoners left Derby gaol for deportation on Friday, 28th November; the others were left at Derby to follow on because of illness. They were all, rightly so, very bitter about their treatment, especially when they compared it to the discharge, on bail, of the only other rebels to respond to Oliver's provocation. In Huddersfield, a capital charge against others failed because the evidence relied upon was that of accomplices. Many of the transportees were able to survive the rigours of Australia, although some died as convicts. All serving life sentences received a pardon on 1st January 1835. The last surviving rebel was George Weightman who died in 1865. The future was slightly kinder to Oliver who left for South Africa in 1820, where he had a job as Inspector of Buildings. He was to die, inauspiciously, in August 1827.

The Conclusion

What of the lessons of the entire event? The political reform movement was blamed for complicity in an entirely government manufactured conspiracy. The Duke of Newcastle (who was Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire) wrote to Sidmouth shortly after the march of the rebels, inferring that the authorities had deliberately allowed the event to occur: "As your Lordship is aware the plot had been hatching for some time, which we knew, and were prepared accordingly". Only by expecting an entirely different support for insurrection than actually existed would Brandreth and the men have embarked upon what was surely self-destruction. Only Oliver gave them any reason to expect otherwise, for they themselves were initially sceptical.

Was it simply a government created folly? E.P. Thompson has seen Pentrich as "one of the first attempts in history to mount a wholly proletarian insurrection, without middle class support". The true nature of Pentrich has been variously distorted as a rebellion, or a revolution, an expression of the desire of common folk for armed uprising. In reality, it was largely a deliberate provocation by the State. The motive? To crush the yearnings for democracy. In a letter in 1831, Lord Melbourne, a former Home Secretary, recalled that there was "much reason to suspect that the rising...was stimulated, if not produced, by the artifices of Oliver".

That there was a willingness of the people to take to arms, cannot be denied - that they were eager to do so can. There was not a revolutionary situation in England at that time, but there was a serious political situation.

Perhaps to the modern mind, used to de-stabilisation techniques and political dirty tricks of all kinds, the notion that Pentrich was part of a government plot to justify greater repression does not sound bizarre. Pentrich happened in the days of infancy for British capitalism - but the cool cynicism of the State machine was far from childish.

Story courtesy of Sylvia Mason (Pentrich Revolution Genealogy)

Some images from Wikipedia (Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License)