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The movement for political reform, which had been agitating since the 1770's, was driven underground as the French Wars enabled English Governments to adopt authoritarian policies of state. As the movement went underground it was radicalised in the process. Economic discontent began to be channelled into political clubs like the Hampden Clubs, formed by Major John Cartwright,
The Hampden Clubs co-ordinated massive petitions to Parliament and, in January 1817, a rally was held in London, marking the first real national co-ordination of any people's organisation of a wider character then the purely sectional trades unions.
The mood of the masses was sharply rebellious - the Prince Regent had stones thrown at the windows of his coach by a crowd. The House of Lords investigated the state of the nation as the political clubs became more and more popular - especially in the Midlands and the North. While the aims of the clubs were modest at first - simply an extension of the franchise - the fear of revolution held by the ruling circles soon gave vent to repression.
In an atmosphere of paranoia bordering on the absurd, the Government suspended Habeas Corpus, and the infamous Sidmouth `Gagging Acts' were passed. (Lord Sidmouth was the Home Secretary.) All public meetings were forbidden, except under licence 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 to be punished severely.
As the discontent reached fever pitch, the first `hunger march' of the unemployed was organised. At the beginning of 1817, the textile workers of Manchester decided to petition the Prince Regent for political reform and relief of the unemployed. The idea was to march to London, over a period of six days, in order to present the petition. The men would sleep anywhere, on the ground, or in churches, but would take a blanket with them; they were rapidly called the `Blanketeers'.
About 12,000, entirely peaceful, supporters of the Blanketeers turned out to greet the start of the march - but the authorities arrested a score or more of the main leaders and dispersed the crowd with troops of dragoons. Despite this, some several hundred marchers had already left, but large numbers were forcibly stopped at Stockport. 500 marchers reached Leek, but as they 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 turned away, but 25 were arrested in Ashbourne itself, and a few got to Derby; only one marcher reached London to present his petition.
Throughout the spring of 1817, the Government set up a network of spies and political provocateurs. The aim would be not only to be aware of trouble, but also to anticipate it. The line between anticipation and prematurely forcing rebellion was fine. But the latter tactic would be ideal for the Government.
One particular agent became famous for his work in Pentrich. As early as the attack on the Prince Regent's coach, `Oliver, the spy' was heard at the Horse Guards "inveighing in such loud and seditious terms against the Prince Regent as to collect a crowd around him". If such was so, then it is tempting to speculate as to whether one of the very acts that justified the repressive legislation was itself a `put up job'. Either way, it certainly didn't take much to inflame the crowd against the Prince Regent.
Oliver passed through Derby on the 26th April on his way north. Having to wait for fresh horses on the public coach, he called upon Robertshaw, the landlord of the Talbot Inn, a local meeting place for radicals. Travelling on his way, Oliver attended a meeting at Wakefield of delegates from across the disaffected counties. One Thomas Bacon of Pentrich was there. Once taken into Bacon's confidence, Oliver was able, a month later, to return to Derby when he stayed at the Talbot Inn. While in the town, he met with a group of six local activists in the upstairs room at the Three Salmons.
Presenting himself as a delegate of a `Committee of gentlemen in London', Oliver intimated that his mission was to "ascertain the sentiments of the people respecting Parliamentary Reform". Only `physical force' was worth trying, he argued. Petitions were a waste of time. The local men responded that the country was not ready - but Oliver told them they were mistaken, "half the country is in an organised state...particularly the manufacturing districts". Some places were only with difficulty prevented from armed action, he claimed. Despite the fact that the six locals thought Derby to be "a very loyal place", Oliver asked that something be done - even only as a token. For "the business would be done in London, where sixty or seventy thousand armed men would be raised in an hour or two's notice".
So the Derbyshire men had only to show that they were in support of this fictitious great national uprising. How could they know the reality? Communications were expensive, limited and dangerous. Thomas Bacon had seen Oliver in action as a `London delegate' already. Bacon had been a radical activist for thirty years. He was later to be described as of "rude and uncultured" appearance, and yet as one who possessed "an excellent natural understanding, a degree of knowledge far beyond the attainment of men of his condition of life". The authorities were well aware of his history and believed him intent on channelling Luddism into a political revolutionary response. A Pentrich Hampden Club owed its existence to Bacon
Pentrich was particularly vulnerable to suggestions of violent militaristic action, for local feelings were running very high. With Luddism and Hampden Clubs well established in the area, the news of the execution of seven Luddites from Loughborough and another in Nottingham in April must have inflamed opinion in the surrounding parts. More importantly, however, four men were currently due to be executed for setting fire to Colonel Wingfield Hatton's haystacks at South Wingfield, very near to Pentrich. Hatton was the local magistrate and squire, so a good deal of anger was generated amongst the commoners about the affair. The four men, George Booth aged 21, John Brown aged 38, Thomas Jackson aged 20 and John King aged 24, all protested their innocence to the very end. One of them was buried in Pentrich in August, after the rebellion. The church funeral service was marked by bitterness. The established church, by and large, counted for little in these remote districts, newly acquiring large populations from mines and textile production, except as the most unrelenting voice of `law and order'.
However, one Hugh Woolstenholme of Crich, who was the new curate of Pentrich, had sharply radical views. The authorities had scant regard for Hugh Woolstenholme; he was "of the lowest order of clergyman, uneducated, of vulgar habits, and low connects". In fact he had attended Sheffield Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, but no matter - a parson had to be a gentleman, a man at least related to property-owners and often was a local magistrate. Woolstenholme, however, was a revolutionary!
Various local dignitaries sensed the rising tide of anger in the area. John Fletcher, proprietor of the Ripley Brewery, made a sworn statement on the 6th June that he was upset by the "frequent private assemblies of Hampden Clubs". There had been three meetings in the previous week with over a hundred present at each one. Fletcher claimed that the "few respectable inhabitants had hidden their valuables because of alarm in the area". The local paper positively and firmly blamed the Hampden Clubs after the event, saying that Monday, 9th June, was "fixed for a general insurrection in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire", and that immense bodies of men, armed with guns, pikes and other offensive weapons, were to have marched out of Lancashire and Yorkshire, over the north-eastwardly side of this county and the westwardly side of Nottinghamshire, into the town of Nottingham". Such a description is so far from reality that it's oddly reassuring to find that newspapers could get it so wildly wrong in the 19th century as they sometimes do today!
In truth, the establishment was well prepared for it all and there was no surprise amongst the authorities. Indeed, in readiness for the anticipated event, over 100 selected and reliable men out of the 700 employed at the Butterley Iron Works, only up the road from Pentrich, were sworn in as special constables, Similar preparations were taken elsewhere, notably at Nottingham, the supposed centre of the rebellion, but it proved impossible to provoke a response from the Hampden Clubs there of the same order as in Pentrich.
There were three men, other than Bacon, who were to feature prominently in the Pentrich affair. Jeremiah Brandreth, or the `Nottingham Captain', was to actually lead the rebellion. Despite some rather wild stories about his origins, Brandreth was an unemployed framework knitter from Sutton in Ashfield. He had, almost certainly, been involved in Luddite activities
Sunday 8th June 1817, Brandreth spoke at a crowded meeting in the White Horse Inn in Pentrich. Repeating, with total belief, Oliver's tale of a grand revolt about to open up all over the country, Brandreth recited some verses of his own composition. Every man "must turn out and fight for bread. The time is come you plainly see, The Government opposed must be". Calling on the men to march to Nottingham, he told them that they would each be given 100 guineas, bread, beef and ale. Over 16,000 men would rise at Nottingham and the Derbyshire contingent would take boats down the Trent to seize Newark.
The rebels 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 insurgents. 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. The 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. The `Captain' 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. 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.