Monday, 13 April 2015

Pentrich - site of England's last revolution

Taken from Rebel Road project of Unite Education.

Longstanding union member Ken Bond is proud to live in Pentrich, Derbyshire, which is the site of England’s last revolution. When the badly organised affair in 1817 was defeated it led to execution for some of the rebels and deportation or jail for others. 

Following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the high price of food and falling living standards, brought on by a rise in unemployment, led to nationwide countryside unrest. 

The iron and textile industries around the small Amber Valley village of Pentrich, where a church was built in the 12th century and where evidence exists that it was already settled in 200AD, were badly hit. Those who could find work had their wages cut and found it difficult to make ends meet.

St Matthews Church, Pentrich

Matters became even worse when in 1816 bad weather resulted in a poor harvest that with food scarce pushed prices up to unaffordable levels. With Parliament unrepresentative of ordinary people there was a major riot on 2 December 1816 at Spa Field, London after Henry Hunt had previously advised his followers to sign a petition demanding universal male suffrage, annual general elections and secret ballots. 

Meanwhile, the monarchy was also angering its subjects. Especially George, the Prince Regent, who was self-indulgent when ordinary people were close to starvation. Driving to Westminster on 22 January 1817, the Prince Regent had his carriage either stoned or a bullet fired on it. 

In reaction to these events, the government passed the ‘Gag Acts’ in February and March 1817. Habeas Corpus was suspended. Gatherings of groups of 50 or more people were outlawed. The French Revolution that lasted from 1789 to 1799 had led to the abolition of the French monarchy and inspired liberal and radical ideas internationally. The ruling class did not want anything similar here. 

Thomas Bacon was a framework knitter in Pentrich, which today lies just off the A36 between Alfreton and Ripley. He went to various political meetings around his area and brought back stories to his local meetings about plans to organise a march from the North and Midlands to London, where, with support from Londoners, the government would be overthrown. For this to have any small hope of success then thousands of people would be needed. 

What Bacon and his fellow conspirators did not know was that present at their meetings was that Oliver, a newcomer to the area, was a government spy. Oliver even encouraged people to take part in the march. Planning meetings were broken up after he relayed information back to the government. Ringleaders were arrested and with a warrant out for his arrest, Bacon went into hiding and when the ill-fated march was held he did not participate. This possibly saved his life.

Leadership of the group passed to Jeremiah Brandreth, an unemployed frame knitter who came to Pentrich on 5 June 1817. At Asherfields Barn and the White Horse Public House meetings he told those present that the march was planned for four days later and would set off from Nottingham at 10pm. Others would join en route and there would be arms collected as pikes, scythes and a few guns had been assembled.

When local men assembled at Hunts Barn in South Wingfield and began marching their attempts to persuade others to join them were met with indifference and in, some cases, hostility, when they knocked on local doors. 

When widow Hepworth refused to hand over any weapons a scuffle broke out during which her servant Robert Walters was shot and killed. This was the only fatality that night but it emphasised now how serious a situation the marchers were in. Attempts by Brandreth to get arms and cannons from Butterly Ironworks, whose later contracts included the structure of London’s St Pancras Station, though were also unsuccessful. The less optimistic now began to drift away and so when the King’s Hussars met the marchers at the Nottinghamshire border they were easily overwhelmed. Arrests were made whilst others disappeared into the nearby fields and buildings until it was clear. 

Although many rebels remained in hiding they were subsequently caught and arrested over the following weeks. 

Following a brief trial, Brandreth and two other ringleaders, both from South Wingfield, Isaac Ludlam, a stone-getter, and stonemason William Turner were hanged and also beheaded. 14 other men, including Bacon, were transported to Australia on the Tottenham and the Isabella. All later received an absolute pardon but none are believed to have ever returned to Pentrich. 

A further six others were jailed before a debate in the press halted the planned repression against another twelve men with the poet Shelley writing a famous lament after the hangings. This included the line “We pity the plumage but forget the dying bird” and was a reference to the much greater sympathetic coverage of the death during childbirth of the Prince Regent’s daughter than the hanged men. 

Pentrich suffered after its failed revolution as plans were laid to ensure few traces or evidence remained of the revolution. The Duke of Devonshire’s agents thus demolished  the White Horse pub and the houses were the guilty men had lived. Wives and children were evicted and forced to leave. Some in the village who had not participated were hostile towards those that had and those that had given evidence at the trial against the participants were rewarded when the guilty men’s land was redistributed to them. A new chapel was built at a cost of £1,600 at Ripley and following which the small village began its growth to become the busy town it is today, while Pentrich gradually became less important. As a result, the latter has retained a largely rural character. 

The harsh repression of those involved at Pentrich did its business. Demands for reform were stilled until the development of the Chartist movement in the 1830s.  

Thankfully, the Pentrich Historical Society has acted to keep alive the memory of the brave men who suffered badly for fighting for their rights. Over a decade ago, with help from the Awards from All Lottery Fund and Amber Valley Borough Council, they had 11 plaques placed to mark the revolution trail, Important places and buildings are highlighted. All can be visited in little more than an hour. Plans are already underway for a special event on the bicentenary in June 2017.

Ken Bond 
Ken Bond will be one of those participating. Born in Dagenham, Ken trained as an electrical engineer and became a member of the EETPU. He moved with his wife, Sue, to Derbyshire 35 years ago and settled in Pentrich 15 years back. He intends staying permanently as he even has his burial plot picked out at the church! 

Ken currently works part-time as a mobile caretaker for Derbyshire County Council and after becoming a TGWU member many years ago he is now a Unite member. He admits he did not know about Pentrich’s history before he moved there “But the big signs in both directions coming into the village are a bit of a give away! You can’t also help but pick things up and I am quite proud of where I live and its history.

“Brandreth was the last man in England to be beheaded and I visited the Derby jail where the gruesome event took place. You have to admire the courage of those who took part in 1817 and what they aimed to achieve was worth fighting for.

“Fairness and justice is important to me. They are attitudes that were instilled in me by my parents. I don’t trust wealthy employers and you need an organisation that supports workers and that’s why I’ve always been a trade union member.”


Jeremiah Brandreth, 31, Frame work knitter from Sutton-in-Ashfield
Isaac Ludlam, 52,Stone-getter from South Wingfield
William Turner, 46, Stonemason from South Wingfield


Thomas Bacon, 64, Frame work knitter from Pentrich
John Bacon, 54, Frame work knitter from Pentrich
George Brassington, 33, Miner from Pentrich
German Buxton, 31, Miner from Alfreton
John Hill, 29, Frame work knitter from South Wingfield
Samuel Hunt, 24, Farmer from South Winfield
John McKesswick, 38, Frame work knitter from Heanor
John Onion, 49, Iron worker from Pentrich
Edward Turner, 34, Stone mason from South Wingfield
Joseph Turner, 18, Clerk from South Wingfield
George Weightman, 26, Sawyer from Pentrich
Thomas Bettison, 33, Miner from Alfreton
Josiah Godber, 54, Labourer from Pentrich
Joseph Rawson, 31, Frame work knitter from Alfreton


John Moore, 49, Frame work knitter from Pentrich
Edward Moore, 27, Shoemaker from Pentrich
William Weightman, 27, Labourer from Pentrich
William Hardwick, 24, Collier from Pentrich
Alexander Johnson, 24. Labourer from Pentrich

Charles Swaine, 33, Frame work knitter from South Wingfield 

Rebel Road would like to extend its thanks to Ken Bond for his help on this article and also to David Condliffe, Unite Community Organiser for the East Midlands. 

No comments:

Post a Comment