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Two Centuries Ago, These Ill-Fated Laborers Attempted to Overthrow the British Government

In 1817, the tragic Pentrich Revolution was short and brutal

A plaque marking one of the sites of the Pentrich Revolution. (Alan Murray-Rust/Wikimedia Commons)
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The pages of English history are punctuated by a number of dramatic rebellions, from the English Civil War to the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolutionary War. Less well-known is the last armed uprising to ever take place in England.

Now, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Pentrich Revolution, Derbyshire will host a series of educational programming this weekend, Stephen Bates reports for The Guardian.

The ill-fated uprising, which occurred in the county of Derbyshire in 1817, was short and brutal. On the night of June 9, a ragtag band of laborers assembled in the village of Pentrich and prepared to march on Nottingham. They believed that they would join up with a larger group of rebels and move on to London, where they would overthrow the British government.

It was a turbulent time in England, as the National Archives blog explains. The country’s economy faltered in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the widely reviled Corn Laws, which restricted the import of foreign grains, making food prohibitively expensive for the nation’s poor. According to Bates, most of the Pentrich rebels were driven to radical politics by hunger and desperation.

As they made their marched along their path of dissent, the rebels tried to gain entry to a local farmhouse. When the owner of the property turned them away, the leader of the group, Jeremiah Brandreth, grabbed his musket and shot one of the farmer’s servants. This unfortunate bystander was the only casualty of the Revolution, though more deaths would soon follow.

When they reached the outskirts of Nottingham later that night, the Pentrich rebels found soldiers waiting for them. The rebels disbanded and fled, but 47 men were apprehended and placed on trial. They were charged with high treason, “an unusually savage indictment for penniless workers rather than aristocratic rebels,” Bates writes. Four of the men were sentenced to death by public hanging, followed by beheading. Twenty-three were shipped off to Australia. Their families were evicted from their villages, and their homes were demolished.

The government was sending a forceful message about its unwillingness to tolerate insurrection. But some believe that government officials were behind the debacle, with most of the blame being placed on William Oliver, also known as Oliver the Spy. As the National Archives blog writes, Oliver was a Home Office agent and England’s first agent provocateur. He was hired to infiltrate associations of rebels in the Midlands and Northern England while posing as a London-based radical. Oliver is thought to have egged the Pentrich rebels on with promises that their actions would be supported by a nation-wide movement.

According to Bates, one of the condemned men shouted, “This is all Oliver and the government!” moments before his execution.

The Pentrich and South Wingfield Revolution Group plans to mark the anniversary with an array of events, among them an exhibition at a local museum, a conference, a play, and guided tours along the rebels’ route. The group hopes to raise awareness about the tragic rebellion that fizzled and died within a few short hours, and that may very well have been doomed from the start.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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