After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the country went into an economic depression, And machines were replacing workers resulting in a rise of 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 made the price of iron ore slump and the production of coal had fallen by a third. The nobility had little understanding of the peoples suffering and needs.
In the Pentrich Rising of 1817 weavers and miners tried to overthrow the government. It was dubbed “the Last Revolution in England,” though it might be more accurately been called a government conspiracy designed to justify repression. The government needed to send a strong message to the masses that no revolution, such as occurred in France, would be tolerated.
About 300 unemployed labourers, led by Jeremiah Brandreth, marched on Nottingham on the night of 9 June 1817. They were lightly armed with pikes, scythes and a few guns They had been told they were part of a national uprising and would join at least 70,000 northerners marching south “like a cloud” to capture London.
There sprung up number of secret revolutionary committees. The one in Nottingham had representative Pentrich called Thomas Bacon. Bacon was known to have revolutionary views, and was the originator of the Pentrich's Hampden Club which were radical campaigning and debating societies. Several meetings were held at Pentrich during which Bacon asserted that preparations for an uprising were well advanced. In March, there was a protest by thousands of depressed Manchester workers. With a view to descending on London to petition the Prince Regent to do something to relieve their economic depression, they marched peacefully carrying blankets to sleep in. Thus, it became known as the March of the Blanketeers. It rained violently on the day the march began. As five hundred of the men marched towards Derby, they found the Hanging Bridge over the River Dove at Ashbourne occupied by masses of troops who were expecting an army of 30,000 rebels. Most of the Blanketeers were turned away, but twenty-five were arrested. Only a few got to Derby and only one marcher reached London to present his petition. However, the Manchester expression of discontent served to keep alive the government’s fear of revolution.
Bacon was suspected of machinery breaking and, with a warrant out for his arrest, had gone into hiding. He, therefore, appointed Jeremiah Brandreth, an unemployed stocking knitter to be his deputy
As they reached the outskirts of Nottingham soldiers of the King’s Own Dragoons were waiting and the marchers fled, confused, scared and drenched, back into the arms of waiting magistrates. They were charged with high treason, Forty-seven of the men stood trial before the lord chief justice and a jury of local landowners in Derby that autumn. The death penalty for treason still included drawing and quartering but the Prince Regent excused them the full horror: public hanging would be followed by beheading. Brandreth, Isaac Ludlam, and William Turner went to the gallows. 23 others were transported to Australia. To make sure all traces of them were expunged, local landowner the Duke of Devonshire had their homes demolished and their families evicted.
The uprising was deliberately provoked by the government. William Richards, known as Oliver the Spy, a paid informer acted as an agent provocateur, telling the men they would be part of a national rising. Richards had been recruited to travel across the Midlands and northern England to infiltrate meetings of political radicals and report back. By the time of the uprising he was already regarded with suspicion by the activists and would shortly be exposed in sharp investigative reporting by the Leeds Mercury newspaper, but the message did not reach Pentrich. In Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, another planned uprising had swiftly collapsed and the rebels there were all acquitted on lesser charges by juries outraged by the government’s underhand use of spies. On the scaffold, Turner exclaimed loudly and distinctly, while the executioner was putting the rope round his neck,: “This is all Oliver and the government!” William Cobbett would later write bitterly: “The employers of Oliver might in an hour have put a total stop to the preparations and blown them to air. They wished not to prevent but to produce those acts.”
Shelley wrote of the event:It is a national calamity, that we endure men to rule over us, who sanction for whatever ends a conspiracy which is to arrive at its purpose through such a frightful pouring forth of human blood and agony. But when that purpose is to trample upon our rights and liberties for ever, to present to us the alternatives of anarchy and oppression, and triumph when the astonished nation accepts the latter at their hands, to maintain a vast standing army, and add, year by year, to a public debt, which, already, they know, cannot be discharged; and which, when the delusion that supports it fails, will produce as much misery and confusion through all classes of society as it has continued to produce of famine and degradation to the undefended poor; to imprison and calumniate those who may offend them, at will; when this, if not the purpose, is the effect of that conspiracy, how ought we not to mourn? Mourn then People of England.