‘Radicalism and Popular Protest in Britain, 1790-1820’, Conference Report, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, 9 June 2017 by Matthew Roberts

To commemorate the bicentenary of the Pentrich rising, the University of Derby organised a one-day conference which brought together academics and interested members of the public. This included representatives from the Pentrich and South Wingfield Revolution group who have co-ordinated a series of events marking two hundred years since the rising. A number of the papers touched on Pentrich to varying degrees, but the brief of speakers was to situate the rising in the context of the febrile underworld of radicalism and protest in the run-up to the tragic events of the night of 9-10 June 1817.

Woodcut of Brandreth’s execution

On that rainy night Jeremiah Brandreth, the ‘Nottingham Captain’, led some 200 men, mostly framework knitters, quarrymen and iron-workers from the Derbyshire villages of Pentrich and South Wingfield, on a fourteen mile march to Nottingham. In E. P. Thompson’s famous judgement, the Pentrich rising was ‘one of the first attempts in history to mount a wholly proletarian insurrection, without any middle class support’.[1] The plan was to take the town, as part of a series of uprisings, and establish a provisional government. On route, a farm worker was shot, most likely by Brandreth, for failing to provide arms and support to the insurgents. When they reached the outskirts of Nottingham, they were apprehended by the authorities who lay in readiness, tipped off by the notorious ‘Oliver the Spy’ (W. J. Richards). Despite trying to effect an escape, Brandreth and the rebels were soon in custody. He was tried and convicted for treason at a special commission – a ‘show trial’ – held in Derby. On 7 November 1817, Brandreth and his two co-conspirators, William Turner and Isaac Ludlam, were executed. While they were spared the full penalties of a traitor’s death (they were not quartered), the men were hung on the scaffold and then beheaded. Their severed heads were then displayed to the sullen Derby crowd as a warning.

With such a focused remit, the conference naturally had a coherence to it, with a seamless transition between papers. Malcolm Chase kicked off proceedings with the first plenary in a fascinating paper that looked, amongst other things, at the colonial afterlives of some of the most notorious government spies and agent provocateurs. ‘Oliver the Spy’ and George Edwards both ended up in the Cape Colony. One of the central themes opened up by Chase, and subsequently explored in a number of papers, was the role of the state in suppressing protest and radicalism. This is a theme that has only really begun to attract serious attention in recent years in Chase’s own work on 1820 along with other scholars such as Neil Pye and Robert Poole.

Oliver the Spy – detail from ‘Conspirators:or, delegates in council’ by George Cruikshank, July 1817

Four papers in two consecutive sessions on ‘Rethinking the Riot’ then went on to discuss the nature of protest, along with the state’s response, from the 1790s through to the 1840s. Nathan Bend’s paper provided an anatomical dissection of the Home Office, laying bear all of its various functions and functionaries who all too often were hampered by their limited resources, sluggish communications and rudimentary policing. Continuing with the anatomy analogy, Dave Steele in his talk sketched out the beginnings of a model he is developing for making sense of the dynamics of political crowds from the 1790s though to Chartism in the 1840s. There has been a tendency amongst historians to over-rationalise protest – one thinks, for example, of the late Charles Tilly’s work;[2] but the strength of Steele’s model is that it gives due recognition to the contingent and often messy nature of riots. Joe Cozens revisited the London ‘crimping’ riots (opposition to army ‘recruitment’) in the 1790s, showing convincingly that London’s riotous predilections lived on after the Gordon riots (the latter often seen as the terminus of that unruly tradition). Richard Gaunt concluded this session with a paper on the Pentrich rebellion itself. Although the point of departure of the rebels was in the villages of Derbyshire, Gaunt made the point that the origins of the rebellion really lay in Nottingham: not only was it hatched there by Brandreth and helped along by spies, but the town was also the destination of the rebels which made sound strategic sense.

Gaunt’s conclusion – that the lord lieutenant of the county, the Duke of Newcastle, was able to breathe a sigh of relief when the villagers around Nottingham failed to turn out in support of the rebels – segued nicely into my own paper in the first session after lunch on ‘Radicalism in Space, Place and Time’. A much truncated version of an article which appeared this summer  in Social History  (42,3), my paper argued that five years before Pentrich, the East Midlands Luddites drew their strength and violence from the very same villages surrounding Nottingham that remained quiescent in 1817. Characteristic of much recent protest history, which emphasizes the importance of locality, Susannah Owen proceeded to adopt a similarly microhistory of the places and spaces of radicalism and loyalism in 1790’s Manchester. Though not present in person at the conference, the influence of Katrina Navickas was discernible in this session, whose work has done the most to urge historians to pay careful attention to the spaces and places in which protest and popular politics occurred.[3] One of the arguments to emerge from this session was the need to situate protest and popular politics in longer chronologies of resistance. Developing this theme in a slightly different direction, Tom Scriven concluded with a paper that located the People’s Charter (1838) in the context of a longer running campaign for cleaning up elections, which began in earnest in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Once again, we are left with the impression that Chartists were shaped profoundly by the radical tradition that they partly inherited and partly constructed.

The conference closed with the second plenary session of the day, delivered by Carolyn Steedman on remembering Jeremiah Brandreth. In a sparkling talk drawing on recent work she has been doing on E. P. Thompson and the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, Steedman traced a tantalising thread which led from Brandreth, to Thompson through to the educational work of left-wing activists in the East Midlands mainly in the fifties and sixties. The focus of Steedman’s paper was Arnold Wesker who put on a play about Jeremiah Brandreth which toured the Midlands during this period. Through some painstaking research – some still very much in progress – Steedman was able to piece together some of the details surrounding the play’s production, staging and reception.

Jeremiah Brandreth by George Cruikshank, 1817.

Steedman’s paper actually sounded something of a (welcome) discordant note to the day’s proceedings concerning Brandreth himself. The portrait of Brandreth which emerged throughout the course of the day, probably more from comments and discussion after papers, was of a man who had not only duped his deluded followers but had been duped himself by Oliver. The image of Brandreth (which I must confess I came to the conference with) of man of messianic, millenarian appeal was repeatedly punctured. Little more than the mythology which has grown up around Pentrich, it seems that this larger than life image of Brandreth traces its origins to the defence at the trial of the rebels in Derby in the summer of 1817, when, to save the skins of his followers, the defence had presented the rebels as poor deluded men taken in by Brandreth’s charisma. Few at the conference seemed willing to endorse E. P. Thompson’s heroic depiction of Brandreth in The Making of the English Working Class. We will never know the full truth about Pentrich, not least because Brandreth refused to divulge details, and his secrets died with him on the scaffold.

The organisers of the conference are to be congratulated for putting together such a coherent and enjoyable programme – and all under the same roof as the spectacular Joseph Wright of Derby collection held by the Derby Museum and Art Gallery.  Despite being a relatively well-traversed field, there is still much that we don’t know about popular radicalism and protest, in particular its relationship with the state, the spatial dynamics of the movement, and – in a way hinted at by Malcolm Chase’s opening plenary – the (ex-)colonial afterlives of British radicals, or for that matter the role of the British/Atlantic world in the formation of British radicals. As the discussion of Brandreth at the conference attests, we continue to be drawn to radical leaders like Brandreth, who remains more elusive than ever. Only greater attention to the cultural stylistic of political leaders – how they clothed themselves in the traditions of popular politics and protest, just as much as they re-invented those traditions – will get us closer to understanding their magnetic appeal, then and now.

Matthew Roberts is an historian of nineteenth-century Britain, and currently Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Sheffield Hallam University. He works on the history of popular politics and protest, and the visual and material culture of politics. His article ‘Rural Luddism and the makeshift economy of the Nottinghamshire framework knitters’ appears in Social History 42,3.


[1]  E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, (London,1963), 668.

[2]  Charles Tilly, Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758-1834 (Cambridge, MA, 1995).

[3]  Katrina Navickas, Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848 (Manchester, 2016).