by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library
On the 14th of July, 1791, a group of eminent Birmingham men – including philosophers, scientists, and newly-rich industrialists – met for dinner at the Hotel on Temple Row. This in itself would not normally be cause for comment; but what sets this meal aside from similar gatherings of urban elites was that the end of the meeting would be the beginning of three days of violent rioting.
The causes of this outbreak were many, but the primary focus for the crowd gathered outside the Hotel that night was the singular fact that the dinner in question was an open celebration of the French Revolution, which had broken out exactly two years previous, by a group of men – many members of the ‘Lunar Society‘ – known for their liberal views on matters political, social, scientific and theological. To compound what could have already been interpreted as an implicit act of treason, was the fact that a handbill had been privately circulating in the city for days prior to the 14th; and that the contents of that bill made clear that the attendees at the Hotel dinner were in the active cause of bringing to an end the “Tyrants” and “legal oppressors” of a “venal” Parliament, Clergy and “reigning Family”.
It was no matter that the bill’s authors were never traced and that it was almost certainly the act of an agent provocateur; the very fact of its existence served to rally a crowd against those present that night. Around 8pm, the crowd became increasingly restless, unaware the diners had in fact departed two hours earlier. Spurred on by another group of eminent local dignitaries – including a criminal magistrate, two attorneys, a vicar, a manufacturer and two justices – the crowd began to turn their attention to the Meeting Houses of the town’s religious Dissenters, that group of English Christians that had broken away from the Church of England – and who were consequently seen as something of a stalking horse for more insidious forms of revolution.
What followed was one of the most shocking episodes in late 18th-century Britain, during which “the rioters attacked or burned four Dissenting chapels, twenty-seven houses, and several businesses” over a period of three nights and four days. It was only the arrival of the military that saw the violence reach its final shattering conclusion; a “sustained assault” by around 30 hard-core rioters on the home of William Withering, a sometime associate of the Lunar Society.
All of which is to be regretted. But readers of this blog would be forgiven for asking why any of this matters to Leeds. The answer lay in the identity of a figure central to the aforementioned Lunar Society, a man whose house was one of those destroyed in the rioting, and a man who was not-coincidentally Minister at one of those four wrecked Dissenting chapels: Joseph Priestley.
Priestley – born in Birstall and formerly Minister at Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds – is a difficult figure to sum-up in a few sentences. By turns a theologian, natural philosopher, chemist, educator and theorist of political liberalism, Priestley was very much a man of his late eighteenth-century times; and yet also, in his scientific work – particularly his isolation of oxygen, his development of soda water and his writings on electricity – a man for all time.
It was that mixture of dissenting theology, rational scientific enquiry and liberal politics that made Priestley the focus of the volatile crowd being directed by the reactionary hands of Birmingham elites on the evening of the 14th. No matter that Priestley was not even present at the Hotel dinner: his (in)famous celebration of progressive principles in 1785, just a few years prior to the outbreak of the French Revolution itself, made him the central target of those intent on defending “Church-and-King”:
“We are, as it were, laying gunpowder, grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition, which a single spark may hereafter inflame, so as to produce an instantaneous explosion; in consequence of which that edifice, the erection of which has been the work of ages, may be overturned in a moment, and so effectually as that the same foundation can never be built upon again…” – Joseph Priestley, The Importance and Extent of Free Enquiry (1785)
So it was that his home and his Chapel were both burnt to the ground, the former resulting in the loss of Priestley’s priceless library and scientific manuscripts. You can read how the Leeds press reported these events through these extracts from the Leeds Intelligencer, part of our extensive newspaper archive:
Priestley was forced into hiding until he could leave Birmingham for Middlesex, but three further years of abuse forced him to move his family to Pennsylvania. He never returned to Britain, this “patron, and saint, and sage,” driven from his homeland “By dark lies maddening the blind multitude/Drove with vain hate” (Samuel Coleridge, “Religious Musings,” 1796. Click here for a full list of our Coleridge holdings).
It was during his time in Middlesex that Priestley wrote his response to the riots: An Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the Riots in Birmingham (1791). In this work, a first edition of which is held at the Central Library, Priestley asserts that it “not the commemoration of the French Revolution” which caused the “late riots” and that it was, in actual fact, “religious bigotry, and the animosity of the high church party against the Dissenters, and especially against the Presbyterians and Unitarians” which was to blame. The Appeal is also significant for containing a letter Priestley received from his former Mill Hill Chapel congregation, expressing their concern for his well-being and asserting their continued respect for his beliefs:
Priestley received other letters from others concerned as to his welfare. One such letter was from the New College in Hackney, where Priestley was to later lecture and preach. We are pleased to report that a manuscript copy of this letter, along with Priestley’s reply, can be found in our Collections, pasted into a further volume – also in manuscript form – a Priestley sermon from 1771, entitled “Ye Are The Light of the World“.
We believe the sermon was written by Priestley himself, though have less certainty with the letters, in that the end of the New College part and the start of Priestley’s reply are written on opposing pages of one single piece of paper, implying that they were written at the same time:
Similarities in handwriting style across the two letters can also be discerned. It may be that Priestley himself, or some other person unknown, copied our version of the letters from a now-lost original, before inserting them into the sermon manuscript. We would be interested to hear from any Priestley experts who might be able to tell us more about these fascinating materials.
Regardless of those questions, these are valuable primary source documents that bring the observer close to History – and specifically a tumultuous History not entirely dissimilar to our own times. To get that sense of communing with the ghosts of the past, or to see additional materials by or about Joseph Priestley, please visit our Local and Family History department.