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Brandreth, Jeremiah [called the Nottingham Captain]locked

(1786/1790–1817)
  • John Belchem

Jeremiah Brandreth (1786/17901790–1817)

by George Cruikshank, 1817

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Brandreth, Jeremiah [called the Nottingham Captain] (1786/1790–1817), revolutionary politician, is of unknown parentage. In the absence of information about his parentage or early life, rumour abounded following Brandreth's apprehension for his part in the Pentrich rising of 1817. To some, his sallow complexion suggested either a Gypsy or Irish provenance, while Thomas Denman, his defence counsel, likened him to a corsair; others believed he had been a sailor or a whitesmith and that he came from Exeter. His background, however, was less exotic. He was born in Wilford, Nottinghamshire, although the date is uncertain, into a long-established but hard-pressed family of framework-knitters from Sutton in Ashfield. It seems he spent some time in the army, but otherwise probably remained in the hosiery districts: he became a stockinger and married a local woman, Ann Bridget, in 1811. Indeed, it is possible that the mysterious Brandreth went silent to the gallows in order to protect colleagues in the secret networks of local protest, the east midlands underground which linked the Luddite industrial outbreaks of 1811–16 to the ill-fated political rising of 1817.

Plans for a general rising gathered momentum after the introduction of repressive legislation in 1817 to curb the radical meetings, societies, and newspapers which had flourished amid post-war distress and dislocation. Central planning meetings were held at Wakefield; these were attended by the veteran Jacobin Thomas Bacon of Pentrich as the Derbyshire delegate. Brandreth's involvement was at regional level, an extension perhaps of his alleged former role as a Luddite captain in the hosiery districts. He was a member of the north midland committee to which Bacon reported. At Wakefield, Bacon and the delegates agreed there should be simultaneous uprisings in the towns of the midlands and the north, a concentration of forces round Nottingham, and then a march on London. To ascertain likely support, Joseph Mitchell was deputed to tour the country: he soon acquired a travelling companion, W. J. Richards, the infamous Oliver the Spy.

Whether Oliver acted as agent provocateur or simply as an informer is not clear; furthermore, there is no concrete evidence of a meeting between Oliver and Brandreth. At the time Brandreth was living in Nottingham on parish relief at Wilford, out of work like many others in the ‘Derbyshire Ribs’ trade. He left Nottingham on 5 June, ahead of Oliver's last visit, to mobilize the villagers of Pentrich, Bacon's home base, in readiness for the rising finally fixed, after two postponements, for the night of 9 June. By this time several district delegate meetings had already been raided and there were considerable suspicions about Oliver. Brandreth, however, proceeded with his mission to lead the Derbyshire insurgents into Nottingham in sure expectation of the establishment of a provisional government. On the night of the 9th he led a contingent of men, over 100 strong, through pouring rain on the 14 mile march, stopping at houses en route to demand arms and support. On one occasion a farm labourer was accidentally shot, almost certainly by Brandreth. They arrived in Nottingham, wet and demoralized, to be confronted by a force of hussars ready in waiting. Brandreth managed to escape, but was eventually discovered and apprehended in a village in Nottinghamshire, whence he returned penniless to his wife (who was expecting their third child), having twice been turned off ships at Bristol bound for America. Tried by a special commission in Derby (where a veil was drawn over Oliver's role) the Nottingham Captain was executed at Nuns Green, Derby, on 7 November 1817 along with two of his lieutenants, William Turner and Isaac Ludlam, fellow members of the north midland committee.

Despite the persistent efforts of the prison chaplain to elicit a confession and establish the details of his past, Brandreth revealed nothing before his execution. His prison letters to his wife attest to a fair standard of literacy but they are devoid of explanation or recrimination. Other than his actions, Brandreth left no record of what Thomas Denman described as his stern and inflexible patriotism. In the absence of evidence, there has been much speculation and controversy about his motives and qualities as a Regency revolutionary. Some historians, critical and dismissive of the underground tradition, have branded him a 'desperate fellow', an impulsive and unrealistic hot-head who duped the credulous folk of Pentrich into foolish violence by his commanding personality and promises of roast beef, plum pudding, newly coined money, and pleasure trips on the River Trent (White, 176–7). Others depict Brandreth in heroic stature; a community-bred, working-class activist, leader of 'one of the first attempts in history to mount a wholly proletarian insurrection, without any middle-class support' (Thompson, 733). In this debate, there is no place for the traditional interpretation of Brandreth as the tool and dupe of Oliver the Spy.

Sources

  • J. Stevens, England's last revolution: Pentrich, 1817 (1977)
  • R. J. White, Waterloo to Peterloo (1968)
  • E. P. Thompson, The making of the English working class, new edn (1968)
  • M. I. Thomis, ‘Brandreth, Jeremiah’, BDMBR, vol. 1

Archives

  • TNA: PRO, Home Office papers, corresp., HO 40/6; HO 42/165, 171

Likenesses

  • Neele, stipple (after W. Pegg), BM
  • W. G. Spencer, drawing, ink on ivory, BM
  • coloured etching, BM, NPG
  • prints, Derbyshire County Library
  • G. Cruikshank, etching, 1817, BM [see illus.]
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
J. O. Baylen & N. J. Gossman, eds., , 3 vols. in 4 (1979–88)