In the early years of the nineteenth century, Europe was a turbulent place. Napoleon was not long off the throne of France, and though the monarchy had been restored the notion of revolution still hung in the air. Works like Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man had fundamentally altered the way people saw the world, and the spread of literacy among the poor accelerated this. In just a few short years a man named Karl Marx would put pen to paper and write the Communist Manifesto. This then, was the world in which the final civil war of English history would (almost) be fought.
There had, of course, been rumblings beforehand. The influx of soldiers home from the Napoleonic Wars had been a majorly destabilising force, leading to widescale unemployment. In December 1816, a meeting of the Spenceans, a group of social protestors, attracted 20,000 people. When the police tried to break up the meeting, a man was stabbed and general rioting broke out. The four speakers at the meeting were arrested and tried for treason, though when the sole witness turned out to be a man with a criminal record who had been paid by the government to infiltrate the group and cause trouble the case collapsed. Two months later, a march by the Blanketeers (an organisation of unemployed Lancashire weavers) prompted the government to pass the Seditious Meetings Act which made it illegal to hold a meeting of more than fifty people. The law would stay on the books unaltered until 1824. On the 28th of March, a meeting of reformers in Manchester was broken up by the police, who the next day claimed to have uncovered evidence of a plot for a major uprising. Large numbers of reformers were arrested and taken to London for interrogation, though none were ever tried. It was in this atmosphere that the actions of three men would lead to open revolution.
Lord Sidmouth, the former Prime Minister and current Home Secretary, was the man whose job it was to keep a lid on this boiling pot. It’s clear that Sidmouth regarded the reformers as a dangerous element, and he was not above sending in agents provocateur to raise them to the point where they could be squashed. To that end, then, he hired a one-time bankrupt and former surveyor named William Oliver. William was recruited while he was in debtor’s prison, and soon inveigled his way into radical circles. In May of 1817, he began travelling through the North of England, spreading (false) rumours that a great uprising was going to happen in London on the 9th of June, and that the radicals of the North needed to rise in concert with their brethren. His plan nearly came unstuck when he was spotted on the 4th of June talking with a known government agent, but the truth did not reach the small town of Pentrich in Derbyshire in time. There a former Luddite named Jeremiah Brandreth had organised a group of 300 men to march on Nottingham. It would not be quite the glorious revolution they hoped for.
The night of the 8th of June (or possibly the 9th, records disagree), Brandreth and his men gathered at a pub in Pentrich. There, to quell the men’s disquiet, Brandreth promised a hundred guineas, as well as roast beef and rum, to each of the men who would follow him. They set off marching through the damp rainy night, stopping at each farm along the way to demand support and supplies. At one farm, Brandreth is said to have fired through the window of a house that refused to open its doors, killing a farm servant. Finally they made it to Nottingham, where they did not find the town already in revolt, but rather a hundred men sitting in the forest and showing no signs of attacking the city. As soldiers left the city and advanced on them, the revolutionaries threw down their arms and fled. Without a shot being fired (except at the unfortunate farmhand), the revolution had ended.
Over the next few days, those of the men who could be identified were rounded up. The government decided to make an example of them, and forty-five were tried for high treason. Of these thirty were transported, and three, including Brandreth, were sentenced to death. On the scaffold, one of them proclaimed to the crowd that they were the victims of “Lord Sidmouth, and Oliver the spy”, an assertion which Edward Baines of the Leeds Mercury decided to investigate. He soon uncovered Oliver’s actions and his government affiliation, with the result that rather than crushing the reformers, the government instead increased their support, due to the perception that they were being tricked into rebellion.
Letters written by Sidmouth and his associates do make it appear that Oliver had somewhat overstepped his remit. Regardless, the social climate continued to worsen. Two years later, this would culminate in the Peterloo Massacre, leading to government passing the Six Acts. This legislation, which Sidmouth presented to the House of Lords, made a second offence of “blasphemous or seditious libel” punishable by imprisonment, levied the tax normally due on newspapers against all pamphlets and leaflets, and prohibited all public assembly except where a warrant was given by a magistrate. Other Acts also made private military training illegal and restricted the possession of weapons. Most of these, however, were never as rigorously enforced as they could have been. The Cato Street Conspiracy the same year was the last major hurrah of would-be violent radicalism in England, and the gradual reforms over the following years defused the tension that had been building. There would, in the end, be no more revolutions in England.