A raucous show about one of England's greatest forgotten revolutionaries
Jack Dean, creator of the raucous new show, Jeremiah tells us about the much misunderstood Luddite Rebellion and its connection to North Devon:
When Jeremiah Brandreth was training and preparing groups of insurgents to overthrow the government from his base in a pub outside Nottingham 202 years ago, he imparted three pieces of information to them: the route of the fifteen-mile march from their village to the city itself, the location of key caches of weapons along the route, and a song that he had written for the occasion. At his trial, much of the account of the first two things became muddied in the second-hand retelling of informers and deserters, but the song could be recounted word for word. It appears verbatim in the chorus of Every Man, one of the songs in Jeremiah:
“Every man his skill must try
He must turn out and not deny;
No bloody soldier must he dread,
He must turn out and fight for bread.
The time has come, you plainly see
The government opposed must be”
The details are hazy, but the song stays in the memory.
In the middle of Stoke Woods there’s an information board next to an opening in the trees that offers a handsome view looking northwards over the Exe valley towards Upton Pyne. It tells of how Jane Austen (possibly) visited Pyne House, the resplendent country house in the Queen Anne style that sits at the southern end of the view. It also tells you how “this view is largely unchanged from Austen’s time”. Rolling vistas. Country houses. Unblemished continuity. You could call this view Peak Devon. But there is another story of the England of Austen’s time, less visible in the landscape, but equally formative in the makeup of who we are today.
When Austen was staying at Pyne House in 1803, the alleged inspiration for much of Persuasion, a Devon-based regiment including a young Jeremiah Brandreth, fresh out of the Blue Coat School in Barnstaple, was sent to guard the public execution of Colonel Despard, a friend of Nelson and man convicted of High Treason on what seems today to be utterly fabricated charges brought by a Home Office terrified a perceived Jacobin domestic threat, an execution witnessed by some 20,000 people. When she was putting the finishing touches on Pride and Prejudice in 1812, the officers that frequented the balls in its Derbyshire setting would have been posted there to put down the Luddite Rebellion, an organised series of machine-breaking attacks, two of which were led by a now ex-military Brandreth, that grew into a vast movement that fought the army in pitched battles with thousands of combatants in Middleton and Bolton that year. And in November 1817, a month before Persuasion was published, Brandreth, the same Devonian who had guarded Despard’s funeral, found himself in his shoes, charged with High treason and decapitated with an axe, all for leading a fight that was, in his words at least, only for bread.
Austen used the artistic medium of her world, the burgeoning and experimental literary form of the novel, and Brandreth used his, the English folk song. That the former’s works omit the tumult beneath the tea-cosies of Georgian England is not necessarily an act of wilful ignorance or loyalty to the status quo. It’s a bit of a stretch, after all, to demand that a woman who found Bath in summertime to be infuriatingly hectic to be some kind of frontline correspondent for civil unrest. But what is certain is that one story has won out over the other over time in the public imagination. The vision of Georgian England as a Downton Abbey fever-dream of rolling hills, sedate country houses and drawing-room intrigues has eclipsed that of seditious pubs, food riots and beheadings, of a government at war with its own people. The details of both are hazy in the public mind, but one song stays in the memory.
If I had the wit of a novelist, the patience of a historian of the grit of an activist, I could unearth the details of the Enclosure Acts that carved up the common lands around Pyne House, the smallholders that were displaced and sent to factories and workhouses in fetid towns with halved incomes and life expectancy, the deforestation that to this day sends cascades of floodwater into the streets of Exeter each winter. But, like Brandreth, I come with nothing but a song. I use the popular medium of my time, which is hip-hop, backed up by subtitles for those to whom it is as foreign a language as Operatic Italian. The second chorus of Every Man is followed by a reference to the opening line of a Nas song, where he sings-off key the question “Whose world is this?”. That, if nothing else, is the question I would like this show to ask.