Ref NoUC 2/15
TitleManuscripts and printed items relating to Joseph Priestley, formerly at the Church of the Messiah, Birmingham, and now on permanent loan to the Reference Library
Date1791 - 1933
LevelSub Collection
DescriptionThis collection of papers relating to Priestley and the riots of 1791 was originally given the catalogue reference UC 2/238, but this number duplicated an original reference number (now finding number) for an item in the main New Meeting House and Church of the Messiah sequence. The finding numbers now allocated to each document in this series is 'Priestley', followed by the number that originally proceeded from '238'. There is an additional copy of an inventory (with transcript) of Dr Priestley's house, which was deposited at Birmingham Archives and Heritage as part of a separate deposit, accession number 174683 [IIR 30] (see UC 2/15/11 - 12). Some contextual information about Priestley and the riots is provided below:

Joseph Priestley was born near Leeds, Yorkshire, into a family of cloth workers and dressers. He was raised a Nonconformist and studied at Batley Grammar School. In 1752 he entered the Dissenting Academy at Daventry to begin theological training, where he also studied philosophy, mathematics, history and science, as well as numerous foreign languages.

In 1755 he became a minister at Needham Market, Suffolk, followed by Nantwich, Cheshire, in 1758. In 1761 Priestley took a teaching post at Warrington Academy, where he wrote his 'Essay on Government' (1768). He also met Benjamin Franklin here, who encouraged Priestley to write 'The History and Present State of Electricity' (1767).

By 1767 Priestley had become a minister at Leeds, where he continued his theological and scientific studies, principally experiments with acids and gases which contributed to the discovery of nitric oxide, nitrous oxide and nitrogen oxide. He moved to Bowood House in Wiltshire in 1772, where he published a number of scientific studies, having isolated oxygen and investigated other gases and electricity and acquired a European reputation as a scientist.

In 1780 Priestley left Wiltshire and became a Unitarian minister at the New Meeting House. He also met with members of the Lunar Society and created a laboratory for his experiments, and wrote on matters such as the slave trade and religious and political liberty. He was particularly active in the campaigns to abolish the Test and Corporation Acts, which restricted the rights of Nonconformists compared to Anglicans.

In 1791 Priestley 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 Birmingham during the previous years between local Dissenters and the established Anglican Church over the campaign to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts. This rift between radicals and conservatives was made worse with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.

On 14 July 1791 a 'Gallic Commemoration Dinner' took place at the Hotel on Temple Row celebrating the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Many of those identified in satirical cartoons and articles in the press at the time, including Priestley, who was accused of raising a toast at the dinner, did not actually attend the event. The event was announced in 'Aris's Birmingham Gazette', with a list of names of those scheduled to attend the dinner to be published in a subsequent issue.

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, which the organisers of the dinner did their best to disassociate themselves from, publishing an announcement in the Gazette on 13 July condemning such handbills. The threat of violence was such that the organisers hoped to call the dinner off. The owner of the hotel proposed a compromise, namely that the dinner go ahead but finish early before a crowd could gather.

Around 80 to 90 people attended the dinner. The toasts that were proposed stressed both their loyalty to the king and constitution and their commitment to reform. They also toasted republican movements in the United States and Poland, but do not appear to have been the inflammatory statements suggested by later critics. The diners left the hotel in peace but a large crowd gathered later, 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 (see letter UC 2/15/9/25).

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 Fair Hill to the Russell family's house at Showell Green, but both Priestley and the Russells moved on, having heard the noise of 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 Russells' 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's had to move, again, to a friend's house at Dudley.

A few days later Priestley was in London, where he wrote his famous letter to the citizens of Birmingham, which appeared in 'Aris's Gazette' on 25 July 1791. In 1794 Priestley left England for the North America, where he settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. He died on 6 February 1804.

Total damage inflicted in Birmingham during the disturbances stood at £60,000. An order was obtained in 1793 to reimburse the sufferers, and much of the negotiations and wrangling surrounding the legal business connected with this can be found amongst the papers below. £26,961 2s 3d was eventually recovered, at the expense of some £13,000 in legal costs. The New Meeting House, having lost their license, was unable to sue, although the king, upon the application of Mr Russell to Prime Minister Pitt, granted a warrant upon the Treasury of £2,000.

Additional legal papers relating to the Priestley Riots can be found in UC 2/14/2/3 - 5. There are extensive collections of printed material written by, or about, Joseph Priestley amongst Birmingham Archives and Heritage's Local Studies Reference Collections (see Local Studies printed catalogues for more details). For more information about Priestley and his career, and more general information about the causes of the riots, see Malcolm Dick, ed., 'Joseph Priestley and Birmingham' (Studley: Brewin Books Ltd., 2005).
AccessConditionsMost of the documents have been microfilmed, and the microfilm should be served instead of the originals.
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