The rich will be poor and the poor will be rich

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JeremiahBrandreth.jpg

Jeremiah Brandreth. Image courtesy of picturethepast.org.uk

The Pentrich Rising in June 1817 emerged from the economic crisis and political repression following the Napoleonic Wars. James Dean recounts the story of this early example of a workers’ insurrection.

This year marks the anniversary of more than one milestone in the revolutionary tradition. Two hundred years ago this month workers from the vicinity of Pentrich, Derbyshire, set out for Nottingham in a bid to overthrow the government.

Workers were denied the vote and the political system was corrupt. The Prince Regent’s treatment of his wife and lavish lifestyle had rendered the monarchy unpopular. Moreover, radicals had been inspired by the writings of Thomas Paine and William Cobbett, as well as the American and French revolutions.

The British ruling class and its allies had emerged victorious from the Napoleonic Wars, yet whole industries contracted once hostilities ceased. Banks collapsed, wages declined and, by 1817, some 300,000 former soldiers swelled the ranks of the unemployed. Income tax on the wealthy was scrapped, while workers struggled under the weight of indirect taxes.

It was in this context that political clubs thrived and petitions for parliamentary reform attracted widespread support. When one such petition, carrying half a million signatures, was presented to parliament, the Prince Regent had the windows of his carriage smashed outside.Lord Liverpool’s government resorted to repression. Habeas corpus — the right to be tried in court — was suspended, spies were utilised and meetings of more than 50 people were banned, driving radicals underground.

Revolutionary organisation appears to have consisted of secret district committees presiding over four hubs in Yorkshire, Lancashire, the West Midlands and the East Midlands. These committees sent delegates to infrequent central meetings.

However, informers and spies leaked information to the government. The most important, William Oliver, perhaps exaggerating, reported that delegates attending a meeting at Wakefield, West Yorkshire, estimated they could collectively muster 216,000 men. They planned to make a stand at the River Trent, before advancing to London.

Jeremiah Brandreth, a framework knitter from Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, was sent to take charge of the Derbyshire detachment. He informed them that they would march on London in order to establish a new government, which would prioritise the hungry and unemployed. He even composed a song for them:

Every man his skill must try,
He must turn out and not deny;
No bloody soldier must he dread,
He must turn out and fight for bread;
The time has come you plainly see,
The government opposed must be.

Rumour of a rising was rife and created a sense of expectation. On the night of 9 June the time eventually came. Around fifty “regenerators”, as they termed themselves, assembled at a barn just outside South Wingfield, near Pentrich. Following their departure they toured the area, demanding men and arms. They divided into two sections. When Brandreth’s band was refused arms at one house, a servant named Robert Walters was shot in the shoulder (the only fatality of the rising).

George Goodwin, manager at a nearby ironworks, noted that, of a party of around 100 rebels marching in regular order, “rather more than half were armed with Guns, the remainders with Spears, stuck in Shafts, about 12 or 14 feet long. Scythes fixed in Shafts one or two with Forks and a very few without arms”.

Near the Gilt Brook stream, between the villages of Eastwood and Kimberley, the rebels spotted a detachment of cavalry and fled. The cavalry pursued them through fields strewn with guns and pikes.

The authorities had gathered sufficient information from informers and spies to know where and when a rising was likely to occur. The precise role of Oliver has been contested, though it seems that the government instructed Oliver to act as an agent provocateur.

It is highly likely that government infiltration was bound up with a genuine revolutionary plot. The government apparently believed that a rising was inevitable and sought to manipulate it in order to serve exemplary punishment.

Thirty five rebels stood trial at Derby. Of those, William Turner, Isaac Ludlam and Brandreth were hanged and beheaded on 7 November 1817. Brandreth had probably fired the shot that ended the life of Walters. However, he was no bloodthirsty killer. In his last letter to his wife he told her that he hoped “that we may meet in heavion wheare Every sorow will Ceas and all [will] be Joy Love and peace”.

He and other radicals associated with the Pentrich Rising had probably been revolutionaries for some time. It is possible that he had been a local leader of the Luddites, who smashed machinery that was detrimental to their work.

Nottinghamshire had been a Luddite centre. So too had West Yorkshire, which witnessed an abortive rising near Huddersfield on the night before Pentrich. A leader at this Folly Hall Rising declared that, “the rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich”.

Though a rising could have swiftly spread, revolutionary organisation was weak and lacked experienced leadership. Nevertheless, according to the Marxist historian E P Thompson, the Pentrich Rising could be seen “as one of the first attempts in history to mount a wholly proletarian insurrection”.