The Pentridge Uprising: Foiled by Oliver the Spy and Lord Sidmouth

The Pentridge Uprising plays a role in my Work in Progress, A Touch of Love, which is book 6 in my highly popular Realm Series. I thought I would share some of my research on the event.

The Pentrich (originally Pentridge) rising was an armed uprising in 1817 that began around the village of Pentrich, Derbyshire, in the United Kingdom. It occurred on the nights of 9/10 June 1817. The name is controversial. While much of the planning took place in Pentrich, two of the three ringleaders were from South Wingfield and the other was from Sutton in Ashfield; the ‘revolution’ itself started from Hunt’s Barn in South Wingfield, and the only person killed died in Wingfield Park.

A gathering of some two or three hundred men (stockingers, quarrymen and iron workers), led by Jeremiah Brandreth (‘The Nottingham Captain’), an unemployed stockinger, and claimed by Gyles Brandreth as an ancestor – although unlikely since Brandreth’s children emigrated to America, set out from South Wingfield to march to Nottingham. They were lightly armed with pikes, scythes and a few guns, which had been hidden in a quarry in Wingfield Park, and had a set of rather unfocussed revolutionary demands, including the wiping out of the National Debt.

The organizer of the event turned out to be a government spy, who became known as Oliver the Spy and the uprising was quashed soon after it began. William (J) Oliver aka ‘Oliver the Spy’ aka W.J Richards – was a 19th-century informer, and suspected agent provocateur, employed by the English Home Office against the Luddites and similar groupings. He appears to have played a significant role in thwarting the Pentridge or Pentrich Rising of 1817, leading to the execution of Brandreth, Ludlam and Turner.
William Oliver was a building surveyor who had been imprisoned for debt before he was recruited by the foreign office. His shadowy role is commemorated in Charles Lamb’s poem,’The Three Graves.’Three men were hanged for their participation in the Pentridge uprising,including Brandreth.

Historical Background
Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 a number of factors combined to drive the country into a severe depression. The increased industrialisation of the country, combined with the demobilisation of the forces, led to mass unemployment. The Corn Laws led to massive increases in the price of bread, while the repeal of Income Tax meant that the war debt had to be recovered by taxing commodities forcing their prices even higher. In addition, 1816 was unusually wet and cold, producing a very poor harvest.

The loss of production of war materials had affected engineering companies like the Butterley Company, the price of iron ore had slumped, and the production of coal had fallen by a third. The hosiery trade had also been falling away for about five years.

There was, in addition, a wider political picture. Since the previous century, there had been calls for parliamentary reform, particularly an end to the rotten boroughs. Subsequently there had been the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror and it appeared that any reform would be accompanied by violence, which Pitt’s government set out to pre-empt by increasingly punitive measures.

Since 1811, there had been minor local uprisings, with stocking frames being smashed in protest at the employment of unskilled workers to produce low quality stockings. Further afield, there had been food riots in many of the big cities.

Around the country there were a number of secret revolutionary committees. The one at Nottingham was headed by a needle maker, William Stevens, and its representative from Pentrich was a framework knitter called Thomas Bacon. Several meetings were held at Pentrich during which Bacon asserted that preparations for an uprising were well advanced, and he had made enquiries at the ironworks and elsewhere about procuring weaponry.

The person appointed by Stevens to be his deputy was Jeremiah Brandreth, an unemployed stocking knitter with a wife and two children. Opinion of him at the time seems to have been somewhat mixed, but he promised the men that they would go to Nottingham, invading Butterley ironworks on the way, where they would kill the three senior managers and ransack it for weapons. At Nottingham they would receive bread, beef and ale, and a sum of money, and they would take over the barracks. They would then proceed by boat down the River Trent and attack Newark. He told them that there were sixteen thousand ready to join them.

Among those present were Isaac Ludlam, a bankrupted farmer who owned a small quarry where he had built up a small cache of pikes, and William Turner an ex-soldier. The plan was to assemble at ten o’clock on the 8th June, where Ludlam’s pikes would be distributed and further weapons would be acquired by requisitioning a man and a gun from each house that they passed.

The March

St Matthew's Church, Pentrich, Derbyshire, UK

St Matthew’s Church, Pentrich, Derbyshire, UK

Around fifty men assembled in South Wingfield and for four hours ranged around the neighbourhood for weapons and extra men. At one house a widow, Mary Hepworth, lived with her two sons. When she refused to open up, the rioters broke a window and Brandreth fired a shot through it, killing a servant. Some of the party were appalled at this wanton act, but Brandreth threatened to shoot them also if they did not remain.

Eventually the group set out for the Butterley Company works. When they arrived they were confronted by George Goodwin the factory agent, who, with a few constables, faced them down. One or two of the party defected and, increasingly demoralised, the remainder headed for Ripley.

There was no police force at that time. Order was maintained by the various semi-private armies such as the yeomanry, while intelligence was gathered by the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, from a network formed of local magistrates and paid informers. One such, William Oliver, was among the group. Indeed there were accusations that Oliver was something more—an agent provocateur under the Home Office’s instruction. Be that as it may, Sidmouth was well aware of what was afoot.

Through Ripley they pressed more followers into service and at Codnor and Langley Mill they awoke various publicans for beer, bread and cheese. It was now raining heavily and yet more men defected.

At Giltbrook they were met by a small force of soldiers: twenty men of the 15th Regiment of Light Dragoons. The revolutionaries scattered and, while about forty were captured, the leaders managed to escape, to be arrested over the following months.

Altogether, eighty-five of the marchers were placed in Nottingham and Derby gaols, to be brought to trial at the County Hall in Derby, charged in the main of “maliciously and traitorously [endeavouring]…by force of arms, to subvert and destroy the Government and the Constitution.” Twenty-three were sentenced, three to transportation for fourteen years and eleven for life. Brandreth, Ludlam and Turner were convicted of high treason and sentenced to death. Although the customary quartering was remitted by the Prince Regent, the three were publicly hanged and beheaded at Nuns Green in front of Friar Gate Gaol in Derby.

There is little to be seen nowadays of the event, but the hexagonal office, where Goodwin stood his ground, still exists in the yard of the Butterley Company’s works.
E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class sees this rising as a transitional event between the earlier Luddite actions and the later populist Radicalism of 1818–20 and 1830–32. (Note that Thompson refers to the village throughout as ‘Pentridge,’ not the modern spelling.)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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