Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 21 June 2017

The Pentrich uprising: revolution and counter-revolution in 19th century Britain

Plaque commemorating the Pentrich 'revolution'

Plaque commemorating the Pentrich 'revolution'   (Click to enlarge)

Jon Dale, Mansfield Socialist Party

The pretty Derbyshire village of Pentrich shows few signs today of its industrial past. But on 9 June 1817 over 200 armed workers marched from there towards Nottingham. Miners, quarrymen, ironworkers, knitters, farm labourers - they believed they were part of a national uprising to overthrow the government, win universal votes and install a provisional government that would feed all.

Workers in 1817 had many reasons to rebel. Discharged soldiers and sailors roamed the country, penniless and homeless. The British ruling class had used them while threatened by the French revolution and Napoleon's armies. Once no longer needed, ex-servicemen were treated abominably.

Mechanisation of agriculture and common land enclosure was turning farm workers into day labourers - paid if there was work, starving if there wasn't - the zero-hour contracts of the time.

Machines in factories were displacing knitting frames in workers' homes. Overproduction slashed pay. The Framework Knitters Union, formed in 1812, won minimum wage rates in 1814 and campaigned against 'truck' payment - workers paid with goods sold (for a profit) by their employer. Three union leaders were then sentenced to a month's hard labour.

The Luddite movement smashed factory knitting frames during 1810-16, including in Derbyshire villages around Pentrich. 3,000 attended the funeral of an executed Nottingham Luddite. Six more were executed and three transported to Australia. The Framework Knitters Union leader pleaded for their lives and was himself imprisoned from April to November 1817.

A massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia made 1816 "a year without summer". Bread and potato prices doubled. Huge protest meetings called for parliamentary voting rights.

Class struggle

The government sent more troops to the Midlands and North than the Duke of Wellington had used in the Peninsular War. Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher similarly sent thousands of police into the coalfields during the 1984-85 miners' strike.

Lord Liverpool's Tory government stood for "tranquillity and harmony" - aristocracy at the top of society and poor at the bottom, accepting their lot without complaint.

Britain is often claimed to be the oldest parliamentary democracy. In 1817 fewer than 3% of the population had the vote. Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds had no MPs. One 'rotten borough' of 32 people had two!

'Hampden Clubs' were set up from 1812, campaigning for votes for all householders and annual parliamentary elections (instead of seven-yearly). Like many other industrial towns and villages, Pentrich had its own Hampden Club.

A national petition gained 500,000 signatures. It was handed in at the opening of parliament in January 1817 - and ignored. The Prince Regent's coach was then attacked and a window broken.

Encouraging the demonstrators was William Oliver, a government spy and agent provocateur.

The 1789 French revolution still terrified the British ruling class. The Seditious Meetings Act of March 1817 banned public gatherings over 50 unless officially authorised. Parts of this act remained law until Thatcher's 1986 Public Order Act, which still gives a senior police officer power to restrict numbers taking part in a public assembly.

On 5 May Oliver told a delegates' meeting in Wakefield that 70,000 Londoners would support an uprising, urging those present to organise for 9 June. Other delegates estimated they could turn out 150,000 from Birmingham and 90,000 from Manchester.

In fact some 'delegates' at the meeting had no authority to be there and these figures were totally made up. Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth planned for the 9 June uprising to justify further repression.

Oliver went back to the Home Office and then to Sheffield, where he tried to incite an uprising at a meeting with claims that 140,000 Londoners would join them if they did.

An engraving of Luddite framebreakers

An engraving of Luddite framebreakers   (Click to enlarge)


At a Nottingham meeting on 6 June he argued: "They were ready to rise in Birmingham, Sheffield and many parts of the North, and that if Nottingham, Derby and Leicester did not rise, they would deceive the other parts." In fact, the deception was all Oliver's.

The Pentrich committee chose framework knitter Jeremiah Brandreth to lead the march to Nottingham. Addressing a meeting on 8 June, he urged every man "must turn out and fight for bread. The time is come you plainly see, the government opposed must be." The following night in heavy rain, the marchers set out armed with scythes, pitchforks, sticks and a few guns.

The next morning the Light Dragoons were waiting to arrest them. A report described a "picture of despair and wretchedness, none of them seeming to be above the rank of labourers or working mechanics."

A grand jury - of landowners, slave-owners and industrialists - decided the prisoners would face charges of treason. Oliver's role was covered up. Trial juries were packed with country gentry.

Three leaders were executed by hanging and then beheading. The Prince Regent 'mercifully' decreed the dead bodies should not then be quartered. Others were imprisoned and 14 transported to Australia for life.

Margaret Thatcher once said: "The idea that all are equal under the law is deeply rooted in our democratic systems and nowhere else." The Pentrich uprising showed the opposite, as did Thatcher herself. All the forces of the state protected the ruling class's interests against growing working class demands for democratic rights.

The capitalist state still defends big business. Agent provocateurs and undercover police have been used in anti-capitalist demonstrations, anti-racist and environmental campaigns and socialist organisations. But the working class today is far stronger than the Pentrich workers 200 years ago.

East Midlands Socialist Party

Sunday 25 June, 1pm

Pentrich Village Hall, Main Road, Pentrich, Ripley, Derbyshire DE5 3RE

Refreshments available

Available from

Payable to Socialist Books

Add 10% postage

Left Books, PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD

020 8988 8789

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 21 June 2017:

Grenfell Tower

Whole establishment exposed for role in Grenfell fire

Organise: justice for Grenfell and safety for all

Massive failings led to Grenfell Tower fire - Rapid, fully funded action now

Anger and grief on moving Grenfell marches

Unions call for action after Grenfell

What we think

Tories and May stagger on amid crisis - get them out!

Finsbury Park attack: No to terror, racism, war and austerity!

International socialist news and analysis

French elections: time to build a fighting left alternative

Socialist Party news and analysis

Kick out the Tories to save the NHS!

Inflation: Workers lose out - time for action

Open University facing huge cuts

The have-yachts and the have-nots

Workplace news and analysis

Jobcentre strike grows in second round of action

BA cabin crew calls two-week walkout over blacklisting accusations

Welsh college strike against crippling workload

Manchester housing maintenance dispute steps up action

Barts Trust NHS workers vote for action over pay

Unison conference: "A sense of change"

Militant mood against college job cuts

NSSN cancels conference to support 'Tories Out' demo

Socialist history

The Pentrich uprising: revolution and counter-revolution in 19th century Britain

Socialist readers' comments and reviews

"Austerity hurts and the only alternative is socialism"

The Socialist Inbox

Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Protests around the country demand: Tories out!

Young socialists share ideas at London meeting

Canterbury pride


Home   |   The Socialist 21 June 2017   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook

Related links:


triangleSalford Socialist Party: The Russian revolution betrayed

triangleCzechoslovakia 1968: 'Prague Spring' challenges Stalinism

triangleBernie's book shows need for workers' party

triangleBirmingham South East Socialist Party: The Iran 1979 revolution

triangleSalford Socialist Party: The Russian revolution betrayed


triangle200-year miscarriage of justice exposing ruling class

trianglePentrich Rebellion 200 years on


triangleRussia, spies and nerve agents

triangleGripping spy thriller exposes hypocrisy of Falklands/Malvinas war

triangle15 years since the invasion of Iraq: what we said


triangleChe Guevara 50 years on - revolutionary socialist and fighter

triangleJuly Days 1917: battles with counterrevolution


triangleYork Socialist Party: Building and financing a revolutionary party


triangleThe Socialist inbox

Historic events

Historic events



15 years since the invasion of Iraq: what we said



Czechoslovakia 1968: 'Prague Spring' challenges Stalinism


Vietnam war

Vietnam War: 50 years since the Tet Offensive



110 years ago: massacre at Santa Maria school in Chile - commemorate 21 December 1907


Russian revolution

Russia, October 1917: When workers took power


Che Guevara

Che Guevara 50 years on - revolutionary socialist and fighter



Mutinies and strikes: when Bolshevism threatened British bosses



Lewisham 1977: When socialists and workers defeated the far-right National Front



Marx's Capital at 150: an unequalled analysis and critique of capitalism


Russian revolution

Russia 1917: how art helped make the revolution


Russian revolution

July Days 1917: battles with counterrevolution



Lessons from the Russian revolution for LGBT+ struggle today



Liverpool's 1983-87 socialist council



The Pentrich uprising: revolution and counter-revolution in 19th century Britain


Russian revolution

June 1917: when workers in Britain first tried to form soviets

triangleMore Historic events articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777


Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 0798 202 1969

East Mids: 0773 797 8057

London: 020 8988 8786

North East: 0191 421 6230

North West 07769 611 320

South East: 020 8988 8777

South West: 07759 796 478

Southern: 07833 681910

Wales: 07935 391 947

West Mids: 02476 555 620

Yorkshire: 0114 264 6551



Alphabetical listing

March 2018

February 2018

January 2018