Magazine article History Today

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

Magazine article History Today

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

Article excerpt

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.

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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 [pounds sterling] in 1780 to 8 million [pounds sterling] in 1812.

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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:

Many who had previously worked smallholdings, finding themselves dispossessed with little work or money, were forced to the towns to seek a living. Wages fell and prices rose, particularly the price of bread. The Corn Law of 1815, passed to protect the profits of landowners and farmers, prohibited the import of corn until the price on the home market reached 80 shillings a quarter (8 bushels). The situation was made worse in 1816 by almost incessant rain through the summer, resulting in a very poor harvest. In 12 months the price of bread rocketed by 40 per cent.

General unrest in the country increased as hunger set in. Food riots broke out in many areas, from London to Newcastle, from Ely to Bideford. But the riots were symptomatic of a deeper level of discontent. Industrialisation, rising prices and falling wages had resulted in violent disturbances over the price of wheat and the harsh treatment by employers as far back as the middle of the previous century. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 under William Pitt's government had prohibited trade unions and made it illegal for more than two people together to demand better pay or working conditions. By 1811 Luddite attacks on machinery were widespread. These were by workers from three trades in particular: clothworkers from the West Riding of Yorkshire; cotton weavers from South Lancashire; and framework knitters from Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. All felt threatened by greater mechanisation and, in the case of the framework knitters, by the production of shoddy, inferior goods. Though for a time all of them tried to protect their interests by cooperation, they were denied workers' rights and eventually turned to machine breaking. In 1812 the government passed the Frame Breaking Act, by which anyone convicted of such activity could be sentenced to death. A number of people in Yorkshire and Lancashire were hanged or transported to Australia. …

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