The Pentrich Rebellion

In 1817, during a period of economic hardship following the war with France, a motley crew of stocking-makers, stonemasons, ironworkers and labourers from a Derbyshire village attempted an uprising against the government. It was swiftly and brutally suppressed. Susan Hibbins tells the story of England’s last attempted revolution.

In 1815 Britain stood at a crossroads. Behind it lay the victory of Waterloo and the end of a costly war with France; before it lay the beginnings of prosperity driven by entrepreneurs and the full implementation of an industrial revolution that was already well underway in some areas of the country. The system of government through which wealthy landowners sought to keep the poor in their place was coming under pressure from radicals seeking proper representation for working men.

Developments in industry and increased mechanisation were changing the traditional patterns of work for thousands who had started the drift from the land to the towns of the Midlands and north of England. But as the mill and factory owners got wealthier, their workers slogged for long hours and lived in slum conditions. After the war there was a slump as the demand for products such as iron and coal fell and manufacturing picked up on the Continent, thus damaging British exports. Unemployment grew, exacerbated by the demobilisation of 300,000 men from the army and navy. Poverty was widespread, particularly in rural areas. The poor rate (the property tax levied by parishes for relief of the poor) increased from £2 million in 1780 to £8 million in 1812.

Although most people still worked on the land, enclosure, which had accelerated from the mid-18th century, hastened by improvements in agricultural practice and husbandry and the increased use of machinery, had hit hard. Once the land was enclosed and worked by individual farmers, many of them wealthy landowners or better-off tenants, each could introduce whatever changes he saw fit. Yields and the efficient use of the land increased, but fewer labourers were needed, smallholdings and the common lands, on which people could graze their animals freely and from where they collected fuel, disappeared. Commenting at the end of the 18th century, the agricultural writer Arthur Young (1741-1820) wrote of the Enclosure Acts:

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