Pentrich Uprising: revolt remembered 200 years on

Two hundred years on from the Pentrich Uprising the attempted revolt and the fate of those at its core is being remembered in the Derbyshire In Revolt exhibition at Pickford’s House Museum, while a new novel by Peter Darrington adds colour to the individuals involved in his fictionalised account Pentrich: England’s Last UprisingStorge editor Sarah Lay looks at how events in this small Derbyshire village two centuries ago have resounded through the years to remain pertinent today. 

The sun is streaming into the attic room of Derby’s Pickford’s House Museum as I softly step across the creaking floorboards and peer at the fading loops of handwriting giving accounts or record of the long-past and yet very relevant Pentrich Uprising. Elsewhere in the Georgian house the Sex Pistol‘s Anarchy in the UK plays quietly from a portable CD player as a backdrop to the display of Vivienne Westwood shoes, while Japanese history, everyday life and folk tales are brought vividly to life in the traditional paintings of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. These seemingly disparate exhibitions subtly linked through their themes of rebellion, change and normal people rendered extraordinary, committed to history for their passions and beliefs.

And 200 years on from the Pentrich Uprising the cause still has relevance, the motivation behind it startling applicable to the modern day. In the unsettled times we live in, with divides ever-growing politically and economically, it is hard not to feel the distance of so many years close and this failed rebellion remain sadly apposite.

The exhibition is dominated by the execution block, the simple dark stained wood a ghoulish draw in the centre of the plain servant’s quarters at the top of the grand house. The cracks, chips and splits in the board transformed from a part of the material to a record of its use as you read of the reported ineptitude of the Derbyshire miner tasked with beheading the bodies of the Uprising’s ringleaders – Jeremiah Brandreth, Isaac Ludlam and William Turner – following their hanging at Derby Gaol. While the fourth leader among them, George Weightman, escaped the noose for a prison sentence in Australia the account of these men who rose from Pentrich and South Wingfield (in what they thought was part of a wider uprising with the intent to overthrow the government) is the focus of the current exhibition. The execution block is one of the few remaining physical remnants of the event, with others included in this small exhibition, although the effects of the uprising continued to be felt in the local area across the years.

Driven by a desire to rise out of poverty and the poor living conditions common to the working class across England at the time, and to challenge a government who favoured the elite over those toiling, around 300 men from these Derbyshire villages banded together and set out to march on Nottingham on the night of 9 June 2017. Armed with their working tools of scythes, saws and axes, they set out from South Wingfield taking a route to Butterley Ironworks in Ripley, through Codnor and Langley Mill before being ambushed by troops at Giltbrook. A government spy was among them, William J. Oliver, and while the group believed they were part of a much larger uprising it seems the game was entrapment in order to set an example to any other working men beginning to get ideas of revolt, the government believing “they could silence the demand for reform by executions for high treason.” The exhibition focuses heavily on this outcome – the trial and the fate of the men, the recording of events in court documents and in trinkets commemorating the executions, the means of disposal of those deemed traitors to the crown – but it’s hard not to be fascinated by the personal motivations that led them to risk everything on this hope for change.

That pertinence to today is heavy in the air as you think of the desperation born from class disparity they must have felt, just as there is a stirring movement seeking change today. But every collective has individuals at its heart and it’s those stories of Pentrich folk which are explored in the new novel by Peter Darrington, Pentrich: England’s Last Uprising. It follows on from his play of the same name and fictionalises those involved while remaining true to the historical record of the event. Centred on the surviving ringleader, George Weightman, it gives an account from his perspective of the build up, the other main players, the hopes and fears, and the eventual outcome. It sets a scene of an England in severe depression after the Napoleonic Wars – industrialisation led to mass unemployment, rising taxes, and a poor harvest all coming together to drive those at the sharp end to increasingly desperate measures. More widely revolution had been bloodily concluded abroad and the government of the day sought to pre-empt an escalation of calls for reform through taking a hardline on those thought to be conspiring. The vulnerability of the Derbyshire men was played on, and while their intent began as peaceful calls for reform their anger was ignited by the spy amongst them in order to escalate their actions; their fate decided before a step had been taken on the march.

Jeremiah Brandreth painting in the Pentrich Uprising exhibitionWhile the account may be fictionalised, Darrington sympathetically filling in the blanks left between historical records, it’s not hard to believe his reading of the people involved is in most parts fair. The revolt was born from desperation, a sense of injustice and the malicious nurturing of false hopes. It was a flashpoint intended to catalyse change but which was used to further secure the status quo, as despite these men now being considered martyrs any outrage at the actions of the ruling classes of the time was mainly impotent. There is conspiracy, the leash pulled taut on the underdog, personal actions and impact, a piece of our country’s past. The novel forges connections to all of that which some will struggle to find in historical record themselves while the exhibition subtly but starkly shows how the blood of this revolution was mainly staining the hands of those in power rather than those who rose against.

Two hundred years on there is much to be learned as well as remembered of the Pentrich Uprising, and the lives as well as the deaths of those directly involved in it. Think of them as you pass through St Werburgh’s churchyard where their bodies first lay in an unmarked grave, or as you drive down Butterley Hill past where the ironworks once stood, or stride past the old County Hall in Derby where their fate was passed. Forgotten by many their ghosts are still in our streets and their attempt should still be in our thoughts; the Pentrich Uprising a lesson from history it would be folly to forget.

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