Joseph Priestley and the Birmingham Riots

Rioters sacking Joseph Priestley’s house and laboratory, 1781 [WK/B11/8187]

The Birmingham Riots of 1791 have their origins in the years before Joseph Priestley came to live in Birmingham, when in 1793 he and others attempted to repeal the Corporation and Test Acts of the previous century. These were a series of laws which prevented those who belonged to religions other than the Church of England from holding a position of public office. It meant that those practising the Catholic, Jewish and non-conformist religions (e.g. Quakers, Unitarians and Methodists) were excluded from working in local or national government. The attempt to repeal the act failed and as a result Priestley wrote a pamphlet suggesting the reform of the established church.

After Priestley moved to Birmingham in 1781, he became Minister of the New Meeting Unitarian Church, one of the largest and wealthiest dissenting congregations in England. He devoted most of his time to the role of Minister, preaching regularly and conducting classes for children and young adults. He also wrote numerous pamphlets or books on religious and educational matters. However, some of his writings were controversial. In 1791, he defended the French Revolution from the critical writings of Edmund Burke, and it was that July that anti-radical ‘Priestley Riots’ (as they became known) swept Birmingham. There had been growing tension in the city during the previous years between local Dissenters and the established Anglican Church over the campaign to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts and this was made worse with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.

Priestley’s house, Fairhill Stratford Road [WK/B11/5620]

On 14 July 1791 a ‘Gallic Commemoration Dinner’ took place at a Hotel on Temple Row celebrating the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and an inflammatory handbill also appeared on the streets of Birmingham around the same time calling for ‘every Enemy to Civil and Religious Despotism’ to celebrate the anniversary. After the guests had left the hotel, a large crowd gathered, accompanied by the town’s magistrates, Joseph Carles and Benjamin Spencer, and the Under-Sheriff of Warwickshire, John Brooke. There has been controversy as to whether they actively manipulated the situation to attack local radicals like Priestley, since it was reported that they were seen drinking with the mob prior to the unrest.

The mob attacked the empty hotel, and then moved on to destroy Priestley’s New Meeting House, followed by the Old Meeting House in nearby Worcester Street. The magistrates do not appear to have wanted the violence to spread further, contemporary accounts suggesting they were shocked when the mob moved down the Stratford Road to destroy Priestley’s house, library and laboratory at Fair Hill. The magistrates were forced to draw up a list of target properties for the mob to attack to help contain the violence, which was now getting out of hand and spilling into Birmingham’s nearby suburbs and villages, such as Bordesley and Moseley.

The violence was fuelled by the plundering of the wine cellars at Priestley’s House and Baskerville House on Easy Hill, some of the drunken rioters perishing after being trapped inside the latter property as it burned down. Priestley had fled from Fair Hill to the Russell family’s house at Showell Green, but both Priestley and the Russell’s moved on, having heard the noise  the rioters were making during the attack at Fair Hill. They then moved to a Mr Hawkes’ house and returned to Showell Green the next day (15 July) to find the Russell’s house had been spared (it was actually destroyed during continued rioting the next day on Saturday 16 July) but hearing of renewed unrest on the streets the Priestley family had to move, again, to a friend’s house in Dudley. The riots continued until the 16th of July and only ended when Dragoons were drafted in from Nottingham to quell the riots.

The destruction and damage caused by the rioters was extensive, with an estimated cost of £60,000 which is equivalent to £9,668,115 today. Only seventeen of the rioters were charged, and out of these only four were convicted. One was pardoned, one was transported to Botany Bay in Australia and two were hanged. An extract from the court records is reproduced below.

Extract from Warwick Court Records listing the convictions and sentences of four of the rioters, 1791 [Birmingham Riots D/1]

Priestley and his family fled to London where a few days later, he wrote his famous letter to the citizens of Birmingham, which appeared in ‘Aris’s Gazette’ on 25 July 1791 and he also published ‘An Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the Riots in Birmingham’ (1791) which accused the citizens of the city of allowing the riots to take place. He and his family left Britain in 1794, settling in Pennsylvania where he continued to preach, founding the first Unitarian church in America. He continued his educational work, helping to establish the Northumberland Academy and donating his library to the institution. He died on the 6 February 1804, aged seventy and was buried in Riverview Cemetery in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.

You can read about the earlier life of Joseph Priestley and some of his chemistry experiments in one of our previous blog posts. You can check the online archives catalogue and the online library catalogue to see what material we hold relating to Priestly.

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