George Brassington was christened in Pentrich 23 January 1785, the child of Thomas Brassington and Dorothy Turton. He married Hannah Taylor in 1810 and had two children, Eliza Brassington in 1812 and Oliver Brassington in 1816. George Brassington is a collateral relation in the family tree of my paternal grandfather’s family, the Birks.
The Birks were a family with deep roots in Derbyshire centring on the villages of Ashover and Flagg in the Peak District. Over a couple of centuries a complex series of closely related families emerged. My grandfather’s branch came from William Birks of Flagg born in 1774 who married Mary Elliott in 1804. Their son, also William Birks (1805-1863), a Unitarian Minister was my grandfather’s grandfather. The collateral branch of the Birks were farmers, based in Ravensnest Farm, which they leased from the Banks’ estates; it is in this line of the Birks’ family which links with George Brassington. In a letter from John Birks, Brassington’s great-grandson, written to my grandfather Frank Birks in 1944, he touches on this relationship
My paternal grandmother was the daughter of Oliver Brassington, and his wife, of Causeway Lane, Crich. A great sorrow clouded her early years, of which I may write later.
The topic was clearly a significant one well over a century after the calamity that overtook George Brassington. My grandfather and his distant cousin shared a deep interest in family history and it is clear that my grandfather did not know the sad story of George Brassington until this letter. It is worth noting that John Birks gets the Christian name of his ancestor wrong, Oliver was George’s son. A couple of months later, John Birks expands the story in rather more detail
My great-grandfather Brassington was falsely accused of having carried fire-arms in the Pentrich Revolution in 1817. Torn from his wife and two young children, never to be seen by them again, he, with several others, was sentenced to transportation for life beyond the seas – Van Diemans Land. Unavailing was the evidence of several men who had conversed with him at his home while the riots were on. Thus was wielded the sword of justice in “the good old days.” Now the sequel. Forty years ago an old man, then eighty, used to come to tell me of former things: his father lived at Pentrich when the riots occurred: the father had given his son a first hand account. It appeared that five false witnesses had sworn away the life of at least one man, and the lifelong liberty of several others. Retribution followed. Within a few years two of these perjured souls died mysteriously. Shortly afterward two were accidentally killed. The last lingered for several years longer. My informant, as a boy, remembered his death suicide. All five died with their shoes on their feet.
These words are clear deeply heart-felt and there is a sense of mythic punishment for those seen as perjuring themselves. It also illustrates the ability of families to know stories about their ancestors and to feel deeply about them.
In 1837 George Brassington’s daughter Eliza (1812-1857) married yet another William Birks, born in 1807. Her, John was born in the same year and later married Mary Berrisford.
George Brassington links the Birks family to one of the more tragic episodes in English history, the doomed Pentrich Revolt. In 1817 a group of men from the Derbyshire village of Pentrich marched towards Nottingham. These were the years after the Napoleonic Wars and times were hard especially for working men; there was revolution in America and new political ideas inflamed men struggling with poverty and unemployment. The rebels expected to meet up with many more marching from the North of England to take part in great march on London, where the government would be overcome and a republic created. They were led by Jeremiah Brandreth, an unemployed stocking maker, nicknamed the “Nottinghamshire Captain”. There was, of course, no rebellion and a terrible revenge was taken on the would-be revolutionaries. There is some evidence that an agent provocateur called William Oliver played a dark role in fermenting rebellion; there can be little doubt that an atmosphere of paranoia coloured the response to the Rebellion.
The leaders of the Pentrich Rebellion and a number of their followers were tried for High Treason in Derby in October 1817. The three leaders were sentenced to death, possibly among the last people to be beheaded in England; although as an act of mercy they were beheaded after being hung. A further 14 were sentenced to transportation to a penal colony in Australia. George Brassington was one of those sentenced to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land for life, partly because he was accused of carrying a gun. The Derby Court records describe him and his sentence
‘Miner –Pentrich, born in Ripley. His physical appearance is 5’10″tall, ruddy complexion, brown to grey hair, grey blue eyes, powder marks on face,lame left leg
1817 Nov sent to hulk Sheerness
New South Wales Dec 1817 ship ‘Tottenham’
Ticket of leave 26 Mar 1827 Sydney changed to Hunters River 14 Apr 1827 Patrick Plains 25 Feb 1831 absolute pardon 1 Jan 1835’
He was transported on The Tottenham, a journey that took around ten months partly because of storms and bad weather. There were around two hundred convicts on board, including ten Pentrich prisoners. Brassington and his fellows prisoners survived, but ten convicts died during the arduous journey. The journey included illnesses such as scurvy, bad weather and the need for repairs to The Tottenham.
George Brassington was a working man, but he had achieved a high standard of literary and was writing letters home from his enforced exile. It included one to Rebecca Godber, the wife of his co-prisoner Josiah announcing the death of her husband in 1823
I have had the misfortune to have my leg broken in the stone quarry, but it is got well and I am acting as potter at the hospital gates, Josiah came to the gate to me and he says “My lad I have got the disentery very bad dost thou think I had not better come in to the hospital.” To be sure I said to him but he was very bad, for he did not live above eight days.
The letter describes the burial, adding that there was “plenty of biscuit, wine, rum and brandy for all that was there.” In March 1836 Brassington was granted a conditional pardon but never returned to his native England, he died in New South Wales in 1846. Research by one of my Birks’ cousins shows that his wife formed relationship with Samuel Hayes at Clays Cross and had a family by him in the years before she was officially widowed. In 1858 she is noted as ‘my wife’ in the Will of Samuel Hayes and their children carry his name. The hardships that a woman with two children and a husband transported for life must have forced some very tough choices. Brassington’s daughter Eliza married William Birks, who was a farmer with 20 acres of land around Ravensnest Farm, in 1834. They had a son and daughter; the son followed the family’s farming tradition. One of their sons was John Birks (1876-1947) who related the story of George Brassington to my grandfather – and from his notebooks I discovered the link between George Brassington and the Birks family.
An excellent site covering the Pentrich Revolt in great detail can be found at
A useful book on the revolutionary threat in early 19th century Britain
Names of interest include Brassington, Hayes and Birks