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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 pe............
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