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    The Birmingham riots of 1791.

The picture which Priestley drew of his life in Birmingham at this period, as given in the autobiographical sketch published after his death, is almost dramatic in its pathos when we bear in mind that it was written almost on the eve of that maniacal outburst of popular passion which eventually drove him from our shores. He said he considered his settlement at Birmingham as the happiest event in his life, as being highly favourable to every object he had in view, philosophical or theological. He thanks God that his prospects are better than they have ever been before, that his own health, and that of his dear wife, is better established, and his hopes as to the disposition and future settlement of his children are satisfactory. He has particular reason to be grateful for the happy temperament of body and mind he owes to his parents, and for the fundamentally good constitution of body to which was due an even cheerfulness of temper which had but few interruptions. Another great subject of thankfulness to a good Providence was his perfect freedom from any embarrassment in his circumstances, for his supplies had been always equal to his wants, and his indifference to an increase of fortune was the means of attaining it.



    “When,” he says, “I began my experiments I expended on them all the money I could possibly raise, carried on by my ardour in philosophical investigations, and entirely regardless of consequences, except so far as never to contract any debt.... But having succeeded, I was in time more than indemnified for all that I had expended.

    “Yet frequently, as I have changed my situation, and always for the better, I can truly say that I never wished for any change on my own account. I should have been contented even at Needham if I could have been unmolested and had bare necessaries. This freedom from anxiety was remarkable in my father, and therefore is in a manner hereditary to me; but it has been much increased by reflection, having frequently observed, especially with respect to Christian ministers, how often it has contributed to embitter their lives without being of any use to them. Some attention to the improvement of a man’s circumstances is no doubt right, because no man can tell what occasion he may have for money, especially if he have children, and therefore I do not recommend my example to others. But I am thankful to that good Providence which always took more care of me than ever I took of myself.”

This serene contentment is reflected in his correspondence at this period, and we find further evidence of it in the letters of his friends.

    “I esteem it a singular happiness to have lived in an age and country in which I have been at full liberty both to investigate, and by preaching and writing to propagate, religious truth; that though the freedom I have used for this purpose was for some time disadvantageous to me, it was not long so, and that my present situation is such that I can, with the greatest openness, urge whatever appears to me the truth of the Gospel, not only without giving the least offence, but with the entire approbation of those with whom I am particularly connected.”

Dr Aikin, visiting him in 1784, says in a letter to Mrs Aikin:—

    “The great philosopher, with his simple, bland, unaffected manners, contented and happy, and declaring that he had not a wish on earth unsatisfied, gave me infinite delight.”

These halcyon days were, however, but as the calm before the storm, and the contented and happy 122 philosopher had soon need of all his philosophy, and of all his Christianity too, in face of the ungoverned fury of the mob which, to use Wedgwood’s words, swept like a hurricane over him and his friends.

The 14th of July 1791—the anniversary of the French Revolution—was celebrated in several towns in England without interruption or any untoward circumstance; that day, however, was long remembered by the inhabitants of Birmingham with feelings akin to horror. It is certain that the popular rising which then took place in that town was in the outset mainly directed against Priestley. The course of events proves this. As it happened, the appetite in the mob for mischief grew by what it fed upon, and many others, his friends and political and religious associates, were involved in the disaster which overtook him. For it would appear that those who, in the first instance, instigated and directed the outrage lost all control over the forces which they invoked, and the rising, which in the beginning was intended to visit Priestley with the vengeance which the Cracow mob inflicted on his prototype Socinus, developed into a wild anarchical riot, confused and purposeless except as gratifying a wanton lust for rapine and destruction. Many contemporary accounts exist of the Birmingham riots of 1791, and although, as might be expected from the temper of the times, some of the narratives are not wholly uncoloured by prejudice and the partisan spirit of political and religious feeling, it is not difficult to put together a true view of an episode which profoundly affected all parties and sent a thrill of apprehension and alarm throughout the country. Political feeling at the period ran high. Europe had recently witnessed the spectacle of a 123 revolution which had filled the governing classes of every state with awe and even terror, and the great masses of the people in this and other countries, to whom all political power was denied, were beginning to realise what might be possible to concerted action properly organised and vigorously pressed. Every bureaucracy was in a state of trepidation. The political atmosphere was heavily charged with electricity and no one could foretell where and when the next thunderbolt would descend. Naturally enough the great vested interests in Church and State looked askance at, and were disquieted by, these periodical celebrations of such an event as the destruction of the Bastile and all that it symbolised, with their odes to Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, and their impassioned appeals to Demos, and the rising hopes of a people grown restive and impatient under what they were taught to believe was political thraldom. It required but a small spark to bring about a conflagration, and designing and unscrupulous men saw in the approaching anniversary of the memorable 14th of July an opportunity of which they were determined to take advantage. Priestley had himself, unwittingly, laid the train which brought about the catastrophe.

    “Dr Priestley,” says Corry, writing in 1804, “from the commencement of his residence at Birmingham, had undoubtedly turned his attention too much from the luminous field of philosophic disquisition to the sterile regions of polemic divinity and the still more thorny paths of polemic politics. His tracts on these subjects amounted to upwards of thirty, and from his celebrity they had a very general circulation. As a philosopher he clearly saw defects in the most perfect of human institutions, and expressed himself with a boldness and freedom which alarmed the neighbouring clergy of the 124 Established Church, and excited their resentment. The labouring classes in Birmingham certainly looked upon him as a disaffected and dangerous man. Incapable of deep reflection themselves, they abhorred his Unitarian principles as subversive of Christianity, and the idea that the Church was in danger was propagated among them by men of deeper discernment, who wished to render Dr Priestley odious and unpopular. A very considerable number, however, of the more enlightened inhabitants, who were convinced of the Doctor’s integrity as a man, sincerity as a preacher, and superlative merit as a philosopher, were his strenuous advocates and admirers. The collision of parties became every day more violent, and the events which were daily transacting in France kept alive the jealousy arising from uncongenial opinions.”

A contemporary account states: The vigorous and repeated attempts of the Dissenters to obtain a repeal of the Corporation and Test Laws [repealed in 1828], excited much alarm and apprehension amongst many of the Established clergy, and were most forcibly felt by those residing in Birmingham. The name and writings of Dr Priestley were as much dreaded by his opponents as they were admired by his friends; and as he long resided near this town, and was eminently conspicuous in his endeavours to procure a repeal of these laws, and in the promulgation of Unitarian doctrines, it is not surprising that his sentiments should have been represented to the lower classes of the people as dangerous to the Church and State.

Attacks made upon his principles and motives in different pulpits were answered from the Press, and produced among other things his Familiar Letters Addressed to the Inhabitants of Birmingham, in which his opponents are combated with much force and severity. In the course of his controversial publications Priestley had made a comparison of the progress of free inquiry 125 to the action of gunpowder. The conclusion of the passage ran thus:—

    “The present silent propagation of truth may even be compared to those causes in Nature which lie dormant for a time, but which in proper circumstances act with the greatest violence. 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.”

This paragraph became to the enemies of the Dissenters a common topic of allusion, and was read in the House of Commons as an unquestionable proof of the dangerous designs of that body with respect to the constitution of this country. Hence the mischievous thinkers found no difficulty in persuading the unthinking actors that the real intentions of the Dissenters were to destroy the churches.

That mischief was being deliberately planned in view of the coming anniversary was certainly known to not a few of those in authority, some of whom from their position were responsible for the order and good government of the town. Some days before the outbreak a number of copies of a seditious hand-bill had been left in a public-house by an unknown person, and this had been copied and circulated throughout the town, causing a general ferment in the minds of the lowest class of the people. Its character was such that the magistrates promptly offered a reward of one hundred guineas for the discovery of the Writer, Printer, Publisher or Distributer of the inflammatory hand-bill. But notwithstanding that the Dissenters themselves 126 afterwards offered an additional reward of one hundred guineas, and the Government also proclaimed a further reward of one hundred pounds, no clue was ever obtained to the persons concerned in its preparation or distribution. Such, however, was the feeling of apprehension in the minds of those who were about to take part in the proposed celebration that it was determined to publish the following advertisement in the Birmingham Chronicle:—

    Birmingham Commemoration of the French Revolution.

    “Several hand-bills having been circulated in the town which can only be intended to create distrust concerning the intention of the meeting, to disturb its harmony and inflame the minds of people, the Gentlemen who proposed it think it necessary to declare their entire disapprobation of all such hand-bills and their ignorance of the authors. Sensible themselves of the advantages of a Free Government, they rejoice in the extension of Liberty to their Neighbours, at the same time avowing, in the most explicit manner, their firm attachment to the Constitution of their own Country, as vested in the Three Estates of the King, Lords and Commons. Surely no Free-born Englishman can refrain from exulting in this addition to the general mass of human happiness. It is the cause of Humanity, it is the cause of the People.

    “Birmingham, July 13, 1791.”

We learn from a letter in the same newspaper, written a few days later by Mr William Russell, Priestley’s friend, and himself, with his family, a sufferer in the events which followed, that in spite of this disclaimer there was still good grounds for believing that evil was brewing. He says that on the morning of the 14th many rumours of the probability of a riot were brought to the friends of the meeting; and as there was too much reason to think that means had been used to promote 127 one, they determined to postpone the intended dinner and prepared a notice to that effect.

    “This,” says Mr Russell, “was sent to the printer, but before he had composed it, Mr Dadley, the master of the hotel, attended, in consequence of having the Dinner countermanded, and represented that he was sure there was no danger of any tumult, and recommended that the Dinner might be held as was intended; only proposing that the gentlemen should take care to break up early, and then all danger would be avoided. This measure was then adopted, and orders given to the printer to suppress the hand-bill. Accordingly there was a meeting of eighty-one gentlemen, inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood, at the great room in the hotel, where they dined and passed the afternoon with that social, temperate and benevolent festivity which the consideration of the great event that has diffused liberty and happiness among a large portion of the human race inspired.”

Mr Russell continues:—

    “It is but justice to the liberality and public spirit of an inglorious artist of this town to mention that he decorated the room upon this occasion with three elegant emblematic pieces of sculpture, mixed with painting, in a new style of composition. The central piece was a finely executed medallion of His Majesty, encircled with a Glory, on each side of which was an alabaster Obelisk; one exhibiting Gallic Liberty breaking the bands of Despotism, and the other representing British Liberty in its present enjoyment.

    “A truly respectable gentleman [Captain Keir], a member of the Church of England, was chairman; others of that profession were of the company, nor was a single sentiment uttered, or, I believe, conceived, that would hurt the feelings of any one friend to liberty and good government under the happy constitution we are blessed with in this kingdom.”

The mob, if they thought at all, thought otherwise. Although, we are told, the utmost harmony prevailed at the festive board, and the company dispersed without the least disturbance, they found a considerable number 128 of the populace assembled in the neighbourhood of Temple Row, evidently bent on mischief. The crowd remained in the vicinity of the hotel, their numbers gradually increasing, for a couple of hours after Captain Keir and his friends had left. Whether the people expected Priestley to be of the company, and fancied he was being detained in the hotel on account of their threatening attitude, is uncertain. As a matter of fact he had not been at the dinner. Suddenly the cry of “Church and King!” was raised, and at that signal every window in the front of the hotel was promptly broken. Thereupon, as if by a common impulse, or if as acting under direction, the crowd swept onwards to the New Meeting, where Priestley preached; this they assailed, we are told, with incredible fury. The New Meeting was erected in 1730: it was described as a considerable pile, “more remarkable for plainness and simplicity than for any uncommon elegance of workmanship or superb style of decoration. The vestry contained a valuable collection of books for the use of the Society which assembled there.” The gates and doors were soon burst open, the pews demolished, the cushions and fragments carried out and burnt in front of the building, and at length fire was carried in which consumed it to the outer walls. The mob was now roused to frenzy. Some of the magistrates strove to quell the riot, and even those who had connived at the outrage grew alarmed at the dangerous temper which they had roused. But the infuriated rabble by this time was thoroughly out of control, and no sufficient force was at hand to cope with it. The Old Meeting-House was next demolished with the regularity of workmen employed for the purpose. A party armed with crow-bars, 129 bludgeons, etc., tore down the pulpit, pews and galleries, and burnt them in the burying-ground, afterwards setting fire to the body of the Meeting-house. The cry of “Church and King!” was again raised, and the rioters marched in a body to Fair Hill, about a mile from the town, where Priestley resided. His house was described by Aikin as “a most comfortable and pleasing retreat.” “Although,” we are told, “it belonged to a gentleman who was deservedly a favourite of the poor, yet because it was the dwelling of Dr Priestley it was doomed to destruction,” and was “attacked with the most savage and determined fury.” Priestley, when the news was brought to him by his friend, Samuel Ryland, of the destruction of the Meeting-Houses and of the impending attack on Fair Hill, was playing backgammon with his wife, as was his custom after supper. He could hardly be persuaded of the danger in which he stood, and it was with difficulty that Ryland hurried him and Mrs Priestley into the chaise which was waiting at the door. He and his wife were then quickly driven to Showell Green, the residence of his friend, William Russell, leaving his son William Priestley, and some other young persons, with the servants to protect the property. What followed may best be gleaned from the graphic narrative of Miss Martha Russell, written within a few days of the occurrence, but first published in The Christian Reformer of 1835, Vol. II. p. 293:—

    “As we were at supper, Tolley, our footman, came in with a countenance as pale as ashes, and told my father a messenger was just arrived to inform him that a mob had collected and set fire to the New Meeting-House, and were then employed in destroying the Old Meeting-House also, and they declared their intention to come from thence to Dr Priestley’s house 130 and then to ours, and that no magistrate appeared or could be found to disperse them. Consternation and alarm now filled our minds. My father ordered his horse, intending to go and meet the mob, and search out the justices to quell it. Whilst he was loading his pocket-pistols to carry with him, a chaise drove up to the door with Dr and Mrs Priestley and Mr Samuel Ryland. The latter had taken the alarm, and, procuring a chaise, had hurried the Doctor and Mrs P. away from their house, fearing the mob would be there immediately. So great was the panic he had felt and inspired them with that they had secured nothing, but seemed as if happy and fortunate in escaping with their lives. We all united in begging my father not to leave the house, and urged the danger he would be in by meeting such an ungovernable concourse of people, and that, being alone, he could do nothing towards quelling them, and no doubt but our friends in Birmingham would some of them exert themselves and stir up the magistrates without his running such a risk. He would, however, hear nothing of it, but declared ‘he would be his own master that night.’ Seeing him resolved to go, Mrs Priestley requested him to bring her a small box of money she had in her chamber, and Dr P. wished for his pocket-book, which contained something of value, and which he had left on the table in the parlour, so great was their hurry and alarm.... We walked up and down the foot-road leading to town in a dreadful state of suspense and apprehension, clearly discerning the fire from the two Meeting-Houses, and distinctly hearing the shouts of the mob....

    “In about three hours my father returned and informed us he went first to Dr Priestley’s house, where he found William Priestley, whom he instructed to begin and move all the Doctor’s manuscripts he thought most likely to be valuable, by means of persons in the neighbourhood whom my father had brought for that purpose, and on whom he could rely, to a place in the vicinity he had fixed upon as secret and secure. This he urged him to do as expeditiously and quietly as possible, and to continue this employ, including also any other valuables he recollected, till my father should send him word to stop, not attending to any reports that might be brought him. My father then rode on to town as far as Digbeth, and there 131 meeting the mob, he tried in vain to proceed. He met many of his friends, all of whom requested him to return, telling him he did not hear the threats that were uttered against him. At length, one of them, I believe Mr J. F——, suddenly turned his horse, and giving him a cut with his whip, the press was so great and the spirit of the horse so roused my father found himself obliged in a manner to return. Arriving at Dr Priestley’s gate before the mob, he stationed himself withinside till the mob came up, and then addressed them, endeavouring to induce them, by fair words and money, to desist and return home. At first they seemed a little pacified and inclined to listen, till one more loud than the rest, and who had the appearance of a ringleader, cried out, ‘Don’t take a sixpence of his money: in the riots of ’80 in London a man was hanged for only taking sixpence.’ They all then vociferated, ‘Stone him, stone him!’ and began to fling stones. My father then, finding it rashness to brave two or three thousand men, turned his horse and rode up to the house, telling William Priestley that he must desist and take as much care of the house as he could, and advising him to make all the doors and windows as secure as possible. He then rode off home and informed us he did not think our house yet in danger, but thought we had better remove with Dr and Mrs P. to Mr Thomas Hawkes, about half a mile off, for fear we should be suddenly surprised. During this time several messages were sent, and friends came to warn us of our danger. All seemed to apprehend the mob would visit us, and we had been advised to set out a barrel of ale on the lawn, thus attempting to pacify them and persuade them to desist. This done, and proper persons left to watch, we all walked up to Mr Hawkes’s. Here we found the family up and under great apprehension; and here we soon heard the shouts of the mob at Dr Priestley’s house (and I shall never forget what dreadful and hideous shouts they were), intermingled with a loud noise of battering against the walls, and such a confusion of cries, huzzas, etc., as cannot be imagined. Soon the flames burst forth, and then all seemed quiet. What were the emotions of our minds at this moment no one can imagine unless they had beheld our countenances and heard the broken, short sentences that formed all the conversation which passed amongst us: yet 132 the extreme agitation of our minds did not prevent us from admiring the divine appearance of the excellent Dr Priestley. No human being could, in my opinion, appear in any trial more like divine, or show a nearer resemblance to our Saviour, than he did then. Undaunted he heard the blows which were destroying the house and laboratory that contained all his valuable and rare apparatus and their effects, which it had been the business of his life to collect and use. All this apparatus, together with the uses he had made of them, the laborious exertions of his whole life, were being destroyed by a set of merciless, ignorant, lawless banditti, whilst he, tranquil and serene, walked up and down the road with a firm yet gentle pace that evinced his entire self-possession, and a complete self-satisfaction and consciousness which rendered him thus firm and resigned under the unjust and cruel persecution of his enemies; and with a countenance expressing the highest devotion, turned as it were from this scene and fixed with pure and calm resignation on him who suffered the administration of this bitter cup. Not one hasty or impatient expression, not one look expressive of murmur or complaint, not one tear or sigh escaped him; resignation and a conscious innocence and virtue seemed to subdue all these feelings of humanity.

    “About four o’clock my father returned and informed us that as the fire had consumed the doctor’s house the mob were nearly dispersed, half drunk, having been up to their ankles in wine in his cellar, where they had broke the necks off all the bottles and inundated the cellar with that portion of their contents they could not drink; that the fields round were now covered with these fiends sleeping from drunkenness and fatigue, and that as day was now come he thought it most likely they would disperse entirely, and that consequently we might return home again. Accordingly we set off, and never shall I forget the joy with which I entered our own gates once more.... A room was prepared for the Doctor and Mrs P. We all looked and felt our gratitude; but the Doctor appeared the happiest amongst us. Just as he was going to rest, expressing his thankfulness in being permitted to lie down again in peace and comfort, my father returned from Fair Hill with the intelligence that they were collecting again, and their threats were more violent than ever, that they swore to find 133 Dr P. and take his life. The chaise was now ordered with all speed, and instead of the much-desired rest the Doctor and Mrs P. were obliged to dress again and get into it, scarcely knowing whither to go. Mr Ryland accompanied them, and it was thought most advisable to take a by-road to Heath, where Mrs Finch, the Doctor’s daughter, lived, near Dudley.”

    “He remained at Heath Forge,” says another account, “until Saturday, July 16th, meanwhile writing to Lindsey and to his sister, Mrs Crouch, then living at Gildersome, fearing that she would receive false accounts through the newspapers. On the afternoon of that day he set off on horseback, with a servant, for Worcester, intending to catch the London mail that evening. But the fugitives lost their way on the Morfe, a common between Heath Forge and Bridgenorth, and wandered about all night. They, however, reached Kidderminster safely in the morning, and were met by Mr Ryland, who offered Priestley his own wig and coat by way of disguise. But the doctor declined. He had on a coat buttoned up to the chin, a wig and a cocked hat, with the point in front, his usual dress out of doors. Mr Ryland accompanied Priestley as far as Worcester, and arrived just in time to take a place for him in the mail to London. He travelled all night, reaching London between six and seven in the morning of Monday, July 18th, and went to his friend Lindsey’s in Essex Street, Strand.”

Miss Russell’s apprehensions proved to be only too well-founded. Showell Green was destroyed, as were Bordesley Hall and Moseley Hall, and other houses in the vicinity of Moseley; Mr Ryland’s house at Easy Hill, and Mr Hutton’s house in High Street and his country seat at Wash Wood Heath.

On Sunday the rioters proceeded to King’s Wood, seven miles from Birmingham, and destroyed the meeting-house and the dwelling of the Dissenting minister. For the greater part of three days the town was in a state of siege, the majority of the shops were closed and business was at a stand-still. Attempts were made to organise a force of constables, but the 134 number got together was insufficient to cope with the mob, and in an effort to protect Mr Ryland’s house the police were beaten after a severe contest, and many were wounded. A number of the rioters lost their lives; one man was killed by the fall of a coping stone from Priestley’s house and a number were wounded. At Easy Hill the drunken wretches in the cellars were overwhelmed by the falling in of the flaming roof, six were got out alive, but terribly burnt and bruised, whilst ten dead bodies were dug out of the ruins.

Late on Sunday night three troops of dragoons reached the town:—

    “Their arrival,” says a contemporary chronicler, “was announced by the sound of their trumpets and the acclamations of the inhabitants. Anxiety, which had been strongly depicted in every face during the day, was succeeded by the smiles of joy and the congratulations of neighbours. The town was illuminated, the rioters, conscious of their delinquency, soon dispersed, and order was happily restored without bloodshed.”

The King, writing to Mr Secretary Dundas in approval of dragoons having been sent to Birmingham to quell the tumult, thus continues:—

    “Though I cannot but feel better pleased that Priestley is the sufferer for the doctrines he and his party have instilled, and that the people see them in their true light, yet I cannot approve of their having employed such atrocious means of showing their discontent.”

From Mr Lindsey’s house Priestley sent the following letter to the Birmingham Chronicle:—

    “To the Inhabitants of the Town of Birmingham.

    “My late Townsmen and Neighbours,—After living with you eleven years, in which you had uniform experience of my peaceful behaviour, in my attention to the quiet studies 135 of my profession and those of philosophy, I was far from expecting the injuries which I and my friends have lately received from you. But you have been misled. By hearing the Dissenters, and particularly the Unitarian Dissenters, continually railed at, as enemies to the present government in Church and State, you have been led to consider any injury done to us as a meritorious thing, and, not having been better informed, the means were not attended to. When the object was right you thought the means could not be wrong. By the discourses of your teachers, and the exclamations of your superiors in general, drinking confusion and damnation to us (which is well known to have been their frequent practice), your bigotry has been excited to the highest pitch, and nothing has been said to you to moderate your passions, but everything to inflame them; hence, without any consideration on your part or on theirs, who ought to have known and taught you better, you were prepared for every species of outrage, thinking that whatever you could do to spite and injure us was for the support of Government, and especially the Church. In destroying us you have been led to think you did God and your country the most substantial service.

    “Happily the minds of Englishmen have a horror of murder, and therefore you did not, I hope, think of that, though by your clamorous demanding of me at the hotel it is probable that at that time some of you intended me some personal injury. But what is the value of life when everything is done to make it wretched? In many cases there would be greater mercy in dispatching the inhabitants than in burning their houses. However, I infinitely prefer what I feel from the spoiling of my goods to the disposition of those who have misled you.

    “You have destroyed the most truly valuable and useful apparatus of philosophical instruments that perhaps any individual in this or any other country was ever possessed of, in my use of which I annually spent large sums, with no pecuniary view whatever, but only in the advancement of science, for the benefit of my country and of mankind. You have destroyed a library corresponding to that apparatus which no money can re-purchase, except in a course of time. But what I feel far more, you have destroyed manuscripts, which have been the result of the laborious study of many years, and which I 136 shall never be able to recompose; and this has been done to one who never did, or imagined you, any harm.

    “I know nothing more of the hand-bill, which is said to have enraged you so much, than any of yourselves, and I disapprove of it as much, though it has been made the ostensible handle of doing infinitely more mischief than anything of that nature could possibly have done. In the celebration of the French Revolution, at which I did not attend, the company assembled on the occasion only expressed their joy in the emancipation of a neighbouring nation from tyranny, without intimating a desire of anything more than such an improvement of our own Constitution, as all sober citizens, of every persuasion, have long wished for. And though, in answer to the gross and unprovoked calumnies of Mr Madan and others, I publicly vindicated my principles as a Dissenter, it was only with plain and sober argument, and with perfect good-humour. We are better instructed in the mild and forbearing spirit of Christianity than ever to think of having recourse to violence; and can you think such conduct as yours any recommendation of your religious principles in preference to ours?

    “You are still more mistaken if you imagine that this conduct of yours has any tendency to serve your cause or to injure ours. It is nothing but reason and argument that can ever support any system of religion. Answer your arguments and your business is done; but your having recourse to violence is only a proof that you have nothing better to produce. Should you destroy myself, as well as my house, library and apparatus, ten more persons of equal or superior spirit and ability would instantly rise up. If these ten were destroyed one hundred would appear; and believe me, that the Church of England, which you now think you are supporting, has received a greater blow by this conduct of yours than I and all my friends have ever aimed at it.

    “Besides, to abuse those who have no power of making resistance is equally cowardly and brutal, peculiarly unworthy of Englishmen, to say nothing of Christianity, which teaches us to do as we would be done by. In this business we are the sheep and you are the wolves. We will preserve our character, and hope you will change yours. At all events, we return you blessings for curses, and pray that you may soon 137 return to that industry and the sober manners for which the inhabitants of Birmingham were formerly distinguished.—I am, your sincere well-wisher, J. Priestley.

    “London, July 19, 1791.

    “P.S.—The account of the first toast at the Revolution Dinner in the Times of this morning can be nothing less than a malicious lie. To prove this a list of the toasts, with an account of all the proceedings of the day, will soon be published. The first of these was The King and Constitution, and they were all such as the friends of liberty, and of the true principles of the Constitution, would approve.”

One of the earliest letters of sympathy he received was from his steadfast friend and benefactor, Wedgwood. It was written from Weymouth, at that time the most fashionable seaside watering-place in England, and condoled with him on the “irreparable loss” he had “sustain’d from the brutality, or rather let us hope the temporary insanity” of his neighbours.

    “If they had arisen merely from the ungovern’d madness of a mob from the lowest order of our species, one would then lament all its effects like those of a storm or hurricane, but if there is reason to believe that the rabble were acted upon and encouraged to such proceedings by those who should be their superiors, one cannot but perceive the too evident spirit of the times, or of the place at least, by which you and so many of your worthy neighbours have suffered.”

Wedgwood then earnestly begs his friend to let him know how he can be of service to him:—

    “Instruct me in the means of doing it and I shall esteem it as one of the strongest instances of your friendship.”

Priestley’s reply was written from the house of his son-in-law, William Finch, Heath Forge, Birmingham, and was as follows:—

    “Your very kind and sympathising letter was very acceptable to me. The shock was no doubt very great, but I thank God I 138 have been able to bear it without any loss of health, or, indeed, of spirits. I begin to suffer most from want of employment and absence from my family, which indeed is irksome to me. My wife behaved with the greatest heroism at the time, but continuing in the neighbourhood, and hearing continually of the bad spirit that prevails in the place, I perceived that her mind began to be affected by it. She cannot remove, as my daughter expects to be brought to bed in about a month, and she cannot bear that her mother should be absent at the time. This circumstance adds much to my difficulty. Could we go together to some distant place for a month we should be much more comfortable. One good thing has already come out of this evil—I have a kind letter from Mr John Wilkinson inviting us to any house of his, and bidding me not to regard any losses that money can repair.”

His brother-in-law promptly sent him £500 after the riots, and subsequently transferred to him £10,000 in the French funds. As these were afterwards nonproductive he afterwards gave him an annuity of £200.

Immediately after the riots he received a great number of addresses and testimonials from his theological and philosophical admirers, and an address transmitted by Condorcet was sent to him from the French Academy of Sciences.

One of the earliest letters he dispatched from London was to Keir, under date July 22, 1791.

    Priestley to Keir.

    “I am very happy to see a copy of your letter to the printer of the Birmingham Chronicle, and in return enclose copies of my ‘Address to the Inhabitants of Birmingham,’ and of Mr Russell’s ‘Account of the Proceedings on July 14th.’ Both these have been in the London papers and I have just sent yours to the printer of the Morning Chronicle.

    “I am happy to hear that all is quiet with you now, but when it will be proper for me to come to you I cannot tell. I fear not before the next Lunar Society. Whether I shall ever 139 have it in my power to collect another apparatus for experiments is quite uncertain, as indeed is, in a great measure, my settling again at Birmingham, though there is no place in the world that I should prefer to it.

    “The extra copies of my last paper for the Philosophical Transactions are printed, and I shall soon send some to Mr Galton to be presented to each of the members of the Lunar Society.

    “I beg my compliments to them, and as long as I live I shall with much satisfaction think of our many happy meetings.”

In a letter to Wedgwood, dated four days later, he sends two copies of his paper, and says:—

    “I fear I shall not soon be able to furnish materials for another. Indeed, what I shall do, or where I shall settle, is uncertain. I shall, however, continue at Birmingham if possible, and resume all my pursuits, in which case I must thank you for a fresh stock of retorts, tubes, etc., etc., etc. This invasion of the Goths and Vandals I little foresaw, and hope it will never be repeated, as I fancy the experiment will not be found to answer.”

The next letter to Keir, dated July 29, 1791, is interesting as throwing further light upon the causes of the riots:—

    “I never thought of returning to Birmingham till my friends there should think it safe and, on their accounts, advisable; and this, I now begin to fear, will not be so soon as you intimate. However, I am ready to attend the first summons, and earnestly wish it may be before the next Lunar Society. But your meeting must not depend upon this event.

    “With this I send each of you a copy of my late, and I fear last, paper for the Philosophical Transactions. I shall always recollect, with peculiar satisfaction and regret, our many cheerful and improving meetings; and if not a constant, shall indulge the hope of being an occasional, attendant.

    “You were certainly a better judge than I was of the spirit of the times. But even you could not have expected such brutal excesses as have taken place; and yet I am willing to hope 140 much from time, from your seasonable letter, and the representations of the more calm and reasonable members of the Church of England, if not from the interposition of Government and the execution of the laws, in which I wish for moderation.

    “I lately dined with Mr Sheridan, who said I should meet Mr Fox.[15] He, however, was prevented from attending, but desired Mr Sheridan to say that he wished to take the matter up in whatever manner we should think proper, by motion in the House on the subject. They conceive that the encouragement given to this High Church spirit by the Court arises from their willingness to crush Mr Fox, who has taken our part, and that they hoped by these measures to intimidate us into silence.

    “This I can hardly think to be the case, and I am unwilling to connect our cause with that of any political party; since upon the face of it, as you have clearly shown, it is wholly of a religious nature. However, I said there would be time enough to take our measures before the next meeting of Parliament.”

Dr Withering, himself a sufferer, hastened to express his sympathy. Priestley replied to his letters as follows:—

    “Your generous contribution towards the re-establishment of my philosophical apparatus cannot but give me satisfaction, though I am sorry to be so burdensome to my friends, especially my fellow-sufferers, among whom you are ranked. But what the country will do towards indemnifying us appears very distant and uncertain, and my claims will be liable to the greatest uncertainty, as the proof that may be required of my losses cannot be given.

    “I am happy to find that your alarms and sufferings have no more affected your spirit and health than my own did mine, and that we may so soon expect your third volume.[16]

    “It will be a considerable time, with every assistance that money can afford, before I can be at work again, and hardly 141 ever to so much advantage as at Birmingham. Such assistance from philosophical friends I should in vain look for here, and as long as I live I shall look back with pleasure and regret to our Lunar meetings, which I always enjoyed so much and from which I derived so much solid advantage. If I could find the same intelligence in any club of Philosophers here, I could not find the same frankness which is the charm of all society.

    “I have nearly printed An Appeal to the Public on the subject of the late riot, and shall direct the printer to deliver you a copy.

    “I am sensible that it will more exasperate my enemies, but it is addressed to our common judges, and may conciliate them, at least in a course of time.

    “I have lately written to Mr Watt, and desired him, or the Lunar Society as a body, to make a proposal to those who act for the country. I hope you will see the propriety of it and contribute to its effect.”

The Appeal evidently cost Priestley much pains in its composition. Part of it was sent in sheets to his intimate friends in Birmingham, notably Dr Withering, Mr Galton and Mr Russell, who conferred together and with Captain Keir as to the advisability of publishing it. Like him they were sensible that it would certainly more exasperate his enemies. Captain Keir endeavoured to dissuade him from its publication, at least in its proposed form, saying that it would “irritate his professed enemies, and furnish them with a new source of abuse,” and that he feared that “Government would become more remiss in prosecuting the magistrates and in protecting the Dissenters in future if they should meet with any passage that would give them offence.”

On learning the opinion of his friends Priestley wrote to Wedgwood:—

    “I have desired the printer to send you a copy of my Appeal on the subject of the riots, in order to have your opinion and advice with respect to publishing of it. Several of my friends 142 in Birmingham, viz., Dr Withering, Mr Keir and Mr Galton, think that it had better be suppressed, or published with many alterations by way of softening. Others, and especially my friends here, are for its speedy publication, or about the time of the meeting of Parliament. In this state of suspense I beg your perusal of it and your free opinion. I think that if I write at all it should not be with less spirit than I have usually shown, and that there is nothing more violent or offensive in this than in several of my preaching publications. But as others are interested in the event of this publication I am willing to be advised by them.”

On August 24, 1791, at the Warwick Assizes, John Green, John Clifton and Bartholomew Fisher were indicted for that they, with one William Jones, at large, with others, to the number of fifty and more, did, on the 15th of July, unlawfully and riotously assemble and with force of arms begin to pull down the dwelling-house of Joseph Priestley, LL.D. The jury found Green and Fisher guilty and Clifton not guilty.

John Stokes, for beginning to pull down the Old Meeting-House in Birmingham, was acquitted, on account of the defects in the indictment. The following was Baron Perryn’s sentence:—

    “Prisoners, you have been convicted by very human and attentive juries of the enormous crimes of setting fire to and destroying the houses and property of your fellow-subjects in a manner as wanton as it was unprovoked. Your cry of ‘Church and King!’ was nothing but a pretext to commit depredation and robbery. The Law and Constitution is a sufficient shield to protect the Church and the sacred person of His Majesty and all his good subjects in their lives and property.

    “At the same time the Law possesses sufficient energy and vigour to make examples of those bad citizens who wickedly and wantonly violate it.

    “You, miserable criminals, are of that number, and it is necessary that your lives should atone for your crimes, as a public example. You must therefore be removed from this world; and I most 143 earnestly recommend you to employ the short space of time which will be allowed to you to make your peace with your offended Creator, who alone can grant that mercy which you must not expect from your country.”

Priestley’s own account of these proceedings, as given in his Memoirs, is very na?ve and even studiously dispassionate. He says:—

    “About two years before I left Birmingham, the question about the ‘Test Act’ was much agitated both in and out of Parliament. This, however, was altogether without any concurrence of mine. I only delivered, and published, a sermon on the 5th of November 1789, recommending the most peaceable method of pursuing our object. Mr Madan, however, the most respectable clergyman in the town, preaching and publishing a very inflammatory sermon on the subject, inveighing in the bitterest manner against the Dissenters in general and myself in particular, I addressed a number of ‘Familiar Letters to the Inhabitants of Birmingham’ in our defence. This produced a reply from him and other letters from me. All mine were written in an ironical and rather a pleasant manner, and in some of the last of them I introduced a further reply to Mr Burn, another clergyman in Birmingham, who had addressed to me ‘Letters on the Infallibility of the Testimony of the Apostles concerning the Person of Christ,’ after replying to his first set of letters, in a separate publication.

    “From these small pieces I was far from expecting any serious consequences. But the Dissenters in general being very obnoxious to the Court, and it being imagined, though without any reason, that I had been the chief promoter of the measures which gave them offence, the clergy, not only in Birmingham but through all England, seemed to make it their business, by writing in the public papers, by preaching and other methods, to inflame the minds of the people against me. And on occasion of the celebration of the anniversary of the French Revolution, on July 14, 1791, by several of my friends, but with which I had little to do, a mob, encouraged by some persons in power, first burned the meeting-house in which I preached, then another meeting-house in the town, and then my dwelling-house, demolishing my library, apparatus and, as far 144 as they could, everything belonging to me. They also burned, or much damaged, the houses of many Dissenters, chiefly my friends.

    “The criminality of the magistrates and other principal High Churchmen at Birmingham in promoting the riot remains acknowledged. Indeed, many circumstances which have appeared since that time show that the friends of the Court, if not the Prime Ministers themselves, were the favourers of that riot, having, no doubt, thought to intimidate the friends of liberty by the measure.”

“The years following the riot of 1791,” wrote Mr Matthew Devonport Hill, “witnessed various displays of hostile sentiment. In preparation for a municipal dinner shortly after that event, of which a member of the powerful and wealthy party opposed to French principles bore the cost, the list of guests accustomed prior to the outbreak to be invited on public occasions had been sedulously cleared of adverse elements. By inadvertence, however, the name of Dr Parr was retained; and the sturdy divine, although he must have surmised that he would be the only representative of his opinions, duly obeyed the summons. The cloth being drawn, the Chairman proposed, as the Doctor no doubt expected, the toast of ‘Church and King.’

“Parr instantly started to his feet, proclaiming in a stern voice his dissent. ‘No, sir,’ said he, ‘I will not drink that toast. It was the cry of Jacobites; it is the cry of incendiaries. It means a Church without the Gospel, and a King above the Law!’”


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