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Notts Rebels: Jeremiah Brandreth

15 April 20

To celebrate the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, we’re launching a brand new weekly series that explores stories of fighting injustice and acts of rebellion from Nottingham’s history. Starting with Jeremiah Brandreth, the ‘Nottingham Captain’, Luddite and leader of the Pentrich Uprising…

The late 18th and early 19th century saw Europe in a state of political and social turmoil. The Revolution in France saw the country plunged into ten years of unimaginable upheaval, during which revolutionaries guillotined their King and the majority of the aristocracy in what was to become known as the Reign of Terror. Coming just a decade after the American Revolution, the colonial revolt in which the Thirteen Colonies defeated the British and established the United States of America, the ruling class in Britain was rightly concerned that their own status quo was to be the next domino to fall to the growing new world order.

An ongoing war with Napoleon, who had risen from the ranks of the French Revolution to become Emperor of France, united the country in the face of a common enemy, but tensions amongst the working class were still high. No more clearly was this seen than in the East Midlands, where working conditions in textiles mills were notoriously harsh. After news of Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo – which finally ended Napoleon’s reign – reached England, most cities threw enormous parties to celebrate. Nottingham, which had grown to become known as a hotbed for revolutionary thinking, celebrated in a far more muted manner, simply marking the occasion with a four-gun salute.

With Napoleon exiled and Britain free from his perennial threat of invasion, friction among the working class only grew further, until the birth of the Luddites – an oath-based organisation of textile workers – in Nottingham in 1811. Protesting what they saw as the deceitful and fraudulent manner of getting around labour practices, the Luddites feared being replaced by technology and the radical faction quickly gained notoriety by destroying textile machinery. Among their number was Jeremiah Brandreth, an out-of-work stocking maker form Sutton-in-Ashfield, who was involved in one such raid during which a fellow Luddite was shot dead.

Having been born in London, Brandreth spent parts of his childhood in Devon and Exeter before joining the 28th North Gloucester Regiment of Foot in 1803. It was in that same year that he witnessed the execution of Colonel Edward Despard and six of his guardsman, who were hung and beheaded for a plot to seize the Tower of London, the Bank of England and execute King George II as a prelude to a wider uprising in London.

For every revolutionary fire the British Government extinguished, two more would ignite around the country, as the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars had seen the country plunge into a depression, owing to increased industrialization, demobilization of the armed forces (which caused mass unemployment), and the Corn Laws, which saw massive increases in the price of bread. The repeal of the income tax meant that the cost of the war had to be recovered by taxing everyday commodities, leading to a situation in which the cost of living for the working class skyrocketed at a time where wages were low, jobs were under threat and unemployment was widespread. To add insult to injury, 1817 was unusually wet and cold, which led to a particularly poor harvest. Subsequently, Britain was on the verge of a revolution for almost a decade: the Luddite movement was followed by the Spa Field riots of 1816 and subsequently the Blanketeers demonstration in 1817. Something had to give. It’s impossible to know whether witnessing Despard’s execution had an impact on Brandreth’s own revolutionary tendencies, but his involvement in the Luddite movement escalated when he became embroiled in the Pentrich Rising in 1817. 

Among Brandreth’s demands was to wipe out the National Debt, seize all public property and abolish taxes

Named after the Derbyshire village in which it began, the Pentrich Rising was an armed uprising that occurred over two nights in June, and saw between two and three hundred men, mostly stockingers, quarrymen and iron workers under the leadership of Brandreth, set out to march on Nottingham. Though lightly armed with pikes, scythes and a few firearms, their revolutionary intent was explicit, although seemingly unfocussed. Among Brandreth’s demands was to wipe out the National Debt, seize all public property and abolish taxes, as well as creating a new currency that would be free to all. His leadership and decision to march on Nottingham, which was to be established as the movement’s national headquarters, saw Brandreth bestowed with the moniker ‘The Nottingham Captain’.

Unbeknown to Brandreth, however, was the fact that among his number was William J. Oliver, otherwise known as Oliver the Spy, a police informer and agent provocateur, who had planted himself in the midst of the rebellion. Rumours of his treachery had already circulated, and Oliver found himself fortunate to survive a grueling cross-examination at the hands of the would-be revolutionaries. Oliver’s saving grace was his apparent commitment to the cause; in the aftermath of the rising, it was said that without Oliver’s active agitation, the uprising might never had occurred at all.

As the armed mob set out toward Nottingham, a fellow revolutionary had found confirmation of Oliver’s position as a double agent, but it was too late, and news never reached Brandreth. The Nottingham Captain had promised his men an invasion of Butterley ironworks, where they would ransack weapons, followed by their arrival in Nottingham, where bread, beef and ale would be waiting for them. The plan was to take over the city barracks, and proceed by boat down the River Trent and attack Newark. He told the gathering crowd that there were 16,000 men in the city waiting to join their number.

The mob arrived at Hunt’s Barn in South Wingfield at around 10pm where, for four hours, the ranged around the neighbourhood scouting for weapons and additional men. Mary Hepworth, a widow who lived with her two sons, refused to open the doors to her house, leading Brandreth to smash a window and fire a shot, instantly killing a servant. This wanton act of violence caused the massed group to turn against their leader, who in turn threatened to shoot them too. The hopelessness of their situation had started to become evident, and Brandreth was buckling under the strain. 

When the executioner held his decapitated head to the crowd, it was not met by the usual cheers that would accompany the death of a traitor

Rain began to fall hard as the increasingly dejected group made their way to the Butterley Company works. There they were confronted by George Goodwin, the factory agent who, with a few constables, faced them down. Several more of the party defected, and the remainder passed through Ripley, Codnor and Langley Mill, where they awoke various publicans for food and ale. With the weather worsening still, their number had dwindled even further, and those that remained were now heavily demoralised. As the group reached Giltbrook, they were met by a small force of twenty soldiers from the 15th Regiment of Light Dragoons, who scattered their number with ease, capturing around forty men. Brandreth, however, had escaped.

Brandreth's freedom didn’t last long, as he was captured in Bulwell on 22 July. The arrested men were charged with “maliciously and traitorously endeavouring… by force of arms, to subvert and destroy the Government and Constitution,” after which twenty-three of the rebels were sentenced: three to transportation for fourteen years and eleven for life. Brandreth and his fellow ringleaders were not treated as leniently, and the government was determined to make an example of them to serve as a warning for other would-be revolutionaries. Brandreth was sentenced to meet the same fate he had seen befall Edward Despard fourteen years earlier: he was to be hung, drawn and quartered.

When the date of his execution arrived, the customary quartering had been remitted by the Prince Regent, and Brandreth was hung and beheaded in front of a large crowd outside Derby Gaol on 7 November 1817. He has the dubious honour of being the last person to be executed by axe in Britain and, when the executioner held his decapitated head to the crowd, it was not met by the usual cheers that would accompany the death of a traitor. Instead, a stony silence swept across their number, and an awaiting regiment of cavalry prepared to charge at the first sign of trouble. The incident brought no credit to the government, and liberal thinkers of the time were disgusted by both the verdicts and executions, particularly at the use of Oliver as an agent provocateur. During his trial, Brandreth had repeatedly asserted that it was Oliver who had pushed the revolutionary agenda and set him up – a claim that he maintained right up until his execution. Rumours circulated that the double-agent had facilitated the entire uprising in order to further his own political standing, a claim that was investigated by Edward Baines of the Leeds Mercury, who found sufficient evidence to justify publishing the story.

In their attempts to create a warning to other revolutionaries, the Government had inadvertently created a martyr in Brandreth. While his uprising has been largely forgotten by history, his name is remembered by a street name in Giltbrook, and the execution block used in his beheading can be seen in Derby Museum. Whether Brandreth was a true revolutionary bent on creating a new world in which workers were well paid and conditions were fair, or a patsy used by Oliver and the Government to flush out anarchic sentiment has long been debated, but ‘the Nottingham Captain’ will forever be remembered as one of Nottingham’s true rebels.

 

‘Voices of Today’ is aimed at inspiring Nottingham residents to get creative and represent their experiences or perspectives on activism, protest and rebellion in a number of ways, including poetry, drawing, singing, acting, dance, creating a protest banner or something different altogether.

You can submit your artistic take on Nottingham's history of activism, protest and rebellion at @nottmcastle using the hashtag #VoicesofToday           

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