Spies, lies and fake news - England's 'last revolution'

News sheet describing the trial
Image caption The trial and execution grabbed headlines from both sides of a partisan press

Two hundred years ago the Pentrich Uprising - the last attempt at armed revolution in England - saw government agents and a rigged trial used to demonise radicals, but also helped change how Britain was run.

The three "traitors" were to be shown mercy - their bodies would not be quartered after hanging and beheading.

But as the crowds watched them die outside Derby prison, the storm of protest about their cause, crimes and fate had already begun.

The year of 1817 was a particularly bad time to be poor.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The spectre of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror haunted the British authorities

The economy was in a slump, laws kept the landowners rich and the previous "year without summer" had left workers' families hungry and diseased.

Political reform and the rights of common people were fiercely debated but Lord Liverpool's Tory government - under the dissolute Prince Regent, George - met calls for change with prison, execution or transportation to the colonies.

Dr Cath Feely, from the University of Derby, said: "These are people who had no control over their lives, either nationally or locally, politically or financially.

Image caption Many buildings in Pentrich were demolished after the Uprising but St Matthews church escaped

"They faced a double whammy that the old aristocracy owned their homes, while the new industrial class owned their livelihoods.

"And with no welfare safety net, a bad harvest was a matter of life and death."

A network of informers left over from the Napoleonic wars now worked against political groups - some peaceful, some not - creating an atmosphere of insecurity and paranoia.

Votes and violence

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ned Ludd and the Peterloo Massacre provoked horror from both public and politicians

Britain simmered with discontent in the early years of the 19th Century and demands for greater rights led to disputes, destruction and death.

Hampden Clubs, named after a leader in the English Civil War, began in 1812 and attracted radical debate but were seen by the authorities as a cover for revolution.

Disorder and protests like the Spa Fields riots of 1816 and the Blanketeers of 1817 led to the suspension of basic civil rights, such as Habeas Corpus.

The most high profile group was the Luddites, named after the mythical Ned Ludd, who from 1811 to 1816 smashed the cloth-making machinery they felt was being used to drive down craftsmen's wages.

The establishment was shaken - at one point more troops were deployed to deal with Luddites than Wellington had to fight Napoleon.

Repression turned to murder in 1819 when cavalry rode down a peaceful reform meeting in Manchester, killing 18, in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

A plan to murder the prime minister and his cabinet in 1820, the Cato Street Conspiracy, led to the execution of five men.

One of these informers, William J Richards - known as Oliver - became the catalyst for events.

Pentrich historian Sylvia Mason said: "Oliver was pulled out of debtors' prison on the proviso he would spy for the government.

"He was paid on results, so he created those results."

Image copyright Library of Congress
Image caption A cartoon had Oliver (centre, orange coat) given honours for his work - to the dismay of John Bull

In early 1817 in Derbyshire he met political firebrands Thomas Bacon and Jeremiah Brandreth. Despite objections, Oliver persuaded them "half the country" was ready to rise.

Brandreth held meetings in a Pentrich inn, calling for a march on Nottingham, insisting they would be paid and fed.

All the while Oliver kept the authorities informed.

Ms Mason said: "The government as good as organised it - they named the day in documents and showed they were planning it from 1815.

"They were afraid a real uprising was coming so they allowed the Pentrich men to march so they could be arrested as used as scapegoats."

On 9 June, up to 400 rebels armed with farming tools and old hunting guns set off for nearby Ripley.

Image copyright Google
Image caption The rebels were blocked at Butterley Works and its hexagonal gatehouse survives on the derelict site

The weather was foul and Brandreth led them in songs to raise their spirits; "The time is come you plainly see, the government opposed must be."

Dr Feely said: "Their demands were vague; a cancellation of the national debt, some calls for a provisional government.

"But most were focused on fairer wages and protection for their livelihoods."

Demands for food and drink led to fights and at one house a servant was shot and killed, apparently by accident.

Image copyright National Army Museum
Image caption The 15th Light Dragoons, veterans of the Napoleonic wars, were stationed in the East Midlands

They slogged on through the day and overnight but the death, the weather, the lukewarm public reaction and the failure to seize new weapons in Ripley saw numbers dwindle.

As the remaining men approached Eastwood on the outskirts of Nottingham on the morning of 10 June, two magistrates, accompanied by soldiers, blocked the way.

Without a shot being fired, the marchers fled. Despite this, some newspapers reported hundreds of well armed men on the rampage.

Retribution was well planned. Dozens were imprisoned, the ringleaders found over the coming months.

Image copyright Derby Museums
Image caption The block on which the men were beheaded is preserved in Derby's Pickford House museum

The trial that followed was, according to many, deeply flawed. The main jury was made up of landowners and factory bosses, who would feel most threatened by the marchers.

Oliver, already unmasked and widely criticised, was kept hidden away.

Bacon's guilty plea - in return for no death penalty - meant no trial, which further hid the agent's role.

Brandreth, with lieutenants William Turner and Isaac Ludlam, were sentenced to their grisly fates. Six thousand people, guarded by troops with drawn swords, watched.

Turner's last words were: "This is all old Oliver and the government."

After being hanged until they were dead, the men were beheaded with an axe, thus achieving the highly dubious distinction of being the last to suffer this punishment in England.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jeremiah Brandreth's swarthy looks and lack of contrition made him the focus of attention

Fourteen others were deported to Australia and six jailed in England but dozens were released on bail.

Dr Feely said: "The authorities knew it was coming and saw it as an opportunity to make an example of such people - hence the harsh sentences.

"But the executions, and the scandal of Oliver's role, provoked huge debate and were used by the opposition Whig party to call for change.

"Pentrich highlighted the repressive nature of government and the need for reformers to work together."

Oliver left for South Africa, never to return.

A Reform Act, which abolished corrupt constituencies, gave MPs to industrial cities and expanded who could vote, was passed in 1832. Two years later all the Pentrich marchers were pardoned.

Ms Mason said: "This is one of the stepping stones to us getting votes, both for men and women, for equal right and trade unions.

"This helped get rights for the working class, for the most oppressed."

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