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Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley's New Meeting House, after it had been attacked by the rioters

The new New Meeting, built in 1802, which replaced the meeting house burnt down in the riots. It became a Catholic mission in 1846 and was consecrated as St Michael's Chapel in 1862. Currently (early 2003) obscured by roadworks, it can be found at the bottom of the passage that goes down the side of the Halifax in the High Street (opposite Bull Street).

Joseph Priestley's home, Fair Hill, in ruins after the riots

John Baskerville's house, roofless and windowless after the riots. (At the time of the riots the house was occupied by John Ryland, Baskerville  having died in 1775.) 

Henry Dundas, the Home Secretary of the day, who took decisive action to quell the riots

Lord North, who as Prime Minister presided over the loss of the American colonies, and who expressed satisfaction in Parliament with regard to the Priestley riots




Although Joseph Priestley's years in Birmingham were the happiest and most productive of his life, they were to end in tragedy, in a terrible orgy of  destruction known as the Priestley riots. He had a seemingly  irresistible tendency to controversy, which gained him a lot of enemies. His book, An History of the Corruptions of Christianity, was not calculated to endear him to the Anglican establishment. Neither was his History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ, which defended Unitarianism and attacked such doctrines as the virgin birth, the Trinity and the atonement.  It came to be that the surest way to gain preferment in the Church of England was to denounce Joseph Priestley, which naturally had the effect of extending the queue of fortune-seekers lining up with attacks on him, the vehemence of any of which was proportional to the loftiness of the detractor's ambitions.

The story of the riots, the most shameful episode in Birmingham's history, is the stuff of a book or a film. The ringleaders were a venal attorney, who (according to William Hutton) was to meet an ignominious death; a criminal magistrate; and a self-serving vicar, also a magistrate, who was not averse to a spot of looting. The attorney was John Brooke, Under Sheriff of Warwickshire, and Coroner. The two justices were Joseph Carles who, despite a substantial income and a reputation for efficiency, died penniless and disgraced; and Dr Benjamin Spencer, Vicar of Aston. Edward Carver, manufacturer, was also implicated. Carver was to become president of The Association for Preserving Property Against Republicans & Levellers, an extremist Anglican organisation, of which Brooke was secretary and Carles and Spencer prominent members.

The event that provided the spark the plotters so assiduously fanned was a dinner held at Dadley's Hotel in Temple Row on 14th July 1791 to celebrate the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. A quantity of inflammatory, and egregiously inaccurate, propaganda was to be published in connection with this dinner - for example, it was alleged quite untruthfully that Priestley, who had not even been there, had toasted ' the king's head on a plate' - but the conspirators' opening shot came on Monday 11th July, when the only advertisement to appear for the dinner was published in Aris's Birmingham Gazette. Immediately below this advert was a notice advising that a list of all those attending the dinner would be published on Friday 15th, price one halfpenny. It is not known who placed this strange notice, or for what reason. Since the price would have been unremunerative (and indeed, no list was ever published), and the announcement would certainly have had an intimidatory effect in the heightened tension of the time, it is likely that the intended effect was to secure the cancellation of the dinner. 

There was also the strange case of the seditious handbill (see right-hand column), six copies of which were found under a table in a pub, also on the morning of the 11th, at about the same time as the advertisement appeared in the Gazette. The diners denied anything to do with this, and despite a royal proclamation enjoining all justices, sheriffs, mayors, bailiffs and other loyal subjects to root out those responsible for its printing, publication or distribution, and offering a reward of £100 for information leading to their arrest, its authors were never traced. Nevertheless, it served to add to the tension. 

The following day, rumours were put about that there was to be a riot on the 14th. These rumours were so widespread - certainly, many of the intending diners knew of them - that the magistrates could not have failed to be aware of them, yet they did fail to send for troops. This suggests that the magistrates were none too concerned about the rumour, perhaps because that is all it was at that stage - backing for the handbill and the notice in the Gazette, intended to ensure that the dinner was indeed cancelled.

If that was the intention, it very nearly succeeded. The organisers decided to call off the dinner but Dadley intervened, fearful of loss of business, giving assurances that there would be no trouble, provided the diners went home early. (It is an interesting question as to how Dadley was able to give such assurances.) The plotters' Plan A having failed, it seems they devised a Plan B, which was to cause the diners to run the gauntlet of an angry crowd as they left the hotel.

On the day of the dinner, Thursday 14th July, crowds began to gather outside the hotel around 7pm and by 8 o'clock a 'prodigious concourse of people' had assembled. But the diners had given them the slip, having gone home in peace before six. As the crowd hung around, evidently unaware of the diners’ departure, Dadley became nervous. He appealed to the magistrates to come and disperse the mob, but unusually the 'decisive, efficient' Justice Carles did nothing. The plotters, who had been dining at the Swan Hotel in Bull Street, were apparently taken aback to learn that Plan B had also failed. It seems that, feeling unable to dismiss the mob with nothing done, and not wishing to let the Dissenters off scot free in any case, they devised Plan C, to send the crowd to sack the Unitarian Meeting Houses. An affidavit was later sworn by one John Lacon to the effect that 'the Justices say we may pull down the Meetings, but not hurt any person's property'.

It appears to have taken the plotters some time to arrive at this decision, for it was only at 9.30 and following a second, and then a third, appeal by Dadley that they made a move. (It is also possible that they were in no hurry to help Dadley, who had thwarted Plan A, and may well have known about Plan B and have double-crossed the magistrates in sending the diners away early.) Justice Carles, who was drunk, moving among the crowd, 'inadvertently' said, 'The gentlemen are gone. You must seek them at their meetings.' Brooke, who lived next door to the hotel and was no doubt concerned for the safety of his own property as the crowd had broken Dadley's windows, is said to have bribed the leaders to move on. Brooke's clerk, Jones, personally led the mob to Joseph Priestley's New Meeting and they torched it, before moving on to raze the Old Meeting. Meanwhile the plotters had returned to the Swan, where they stayed up, drinking until daylight. It was during the night that they learned that the mob had gone beyond what they had sanctioned and had moved on to Joseph Priestley's home, Fair Hill, in Sparkbrook. Having been warned of their approach, Priestley and his family had fled to safety, but the house, along with his irreplaceable library, manuscripts and scientific apparatus, was ransacked and burnt. Spencer rode out to Fair Hill in the early hours to see the devastation for himself. While he was there he looted Joseph Priestley's priceless scientific papers. They have never been seen since. 

The looting of Fair Hill

The mob having taken things into their own hands, the conspirators now needed to regain the initiative. It was time for Plan D.

Even victims of the riots like William Hutton allowed that the plotters had not intended the devastation that occurred, but only the cancellation of the dinner. If that really was the case, their next move was extraordinary. Having lost control of the situation, one would expect them to have sworn in constables, accepted an offer of assistance which was made by a recruiting party that was in the town at the time, and to have sent immediately for troops. In fact, they did none of those things. Far from it - it seems that they drew up a list of Dissenters' houses that were to be attacked.

Although it must be said that no list has ever been found, there is ample evidence that one existed and that the magistrates had sanctioned it. For example, many if not all of the victims were warned that they were targets before their houses were attacked (and some, in consequence, were able to save their homes). Reports that the rioters attacked houses with such confidence that it was 'as if they had been employed at so much a day', and carried away looted items 'as if they had bought them at a sale' suggest that they believed they were acting under the protection of the magistrates. There are also numerous reports that the magistrates kept in touch with the rioters during the day; that they ordered the warder of the town gaol to accept no prisoners; and that they personally released looters who had been caught red-handed. One is led inescapably to the conclusion that, whatever the ringleaders' original intentions, they were now bent upon serious mischief. Were they really sucked in deep against their wishes? Were they, fuelled by drink, carried away as the mob were? Or did the events of the night present them with an opportunity, which they calculatingly seized, to go farther than they had originally thought possible? Whatever their motives and emotions, there can be little doubt that this villainous trio now put aside all considerations of duty, justice, and the law that it was the sworn duty of all three of them to uphold.

Having burnt Fair Hill on the night of Thursday 14th, the rioters were allowed a full day in which to pursue, unimpeded, their trail of destruction before the magistrates sent a letter, asking for troops, to the Home Office in the late afternoon or evening. Why send to the Home Office rather than send directly for the nearest soldiers, when writing to London would delay the arrival of any troops by 24 hours? The magistrates claimed not to know where the nearest troops were, a claim that was sufficiently plausible not to elicit a challenge from George Humphrys, an intelligent man and one of their victims. Yet 18 months earlier the magistrates had made arrangements with the War Office that dragoons would be dispatched from Derby or Leicester in the event of a riot, a fact that was well known in the town. It therefore appears, firstly that the dragoons had been withdrawn from Derby and Leicester (and that this fact was known also to George Humphrys) and secondly, that by the time this was done the magistrates were sufficiently unconcerned about the threat of a riot that they had not sought alternative arrangements.

The letter to the Home Office did not arrive until after lunch on Saturday 16th July. Messengers would then have to be sent north to call troops, which in turn had to be readied and then marched to Birmingham. Contrary to rumours that the government was implicated in the riots, it seems to have acted with commendable speed and considerable determination, for a troop of dragoons arrived from Nottingham in the afternoon of Sunday 17th, having made a forced march of 59 miles. More soldiers, including the King's personal escort, poured into the town on the Monday and Tuesday, from all points of the compass. Meanwhile in Birmingham the rioting, which had continued apace on the Saturday and with somewhat diminished intensity on the Sunday, was brought to an abrupt halt by the arrival of the troops. In all 27 houses and four meeting houses had been attacked.

At about the same time on the Friday evening as the letter to the Home Office was despatched, a handbill was published, headed Hasty Hint from a Churchman (Spencer, perhaps?). It read, 'My Boys, I humbly intreat you to desist from any further depredations and be content with the punishment you have already inflicted on the Presbyterians. Do read the following extract from Burn's Justice ... "And the Hundred, City or Town shall answer to the Damages thereof ... So that, My Boys, you will clearly see that by destroying private property, all Damages will be made good by the TOWN"'. The magistrates made the same argument again on the Sunday. Despite the terminology, it is unlikely that these appeals were really addressed to the rioters, many of whom would be unable to read them and few, if any, of whom would have been ratepayers. More likely they were intended to assure those who were ratepayers, or perhaps the government, that the magistrates were doing something to bring the situation under control. In the event, damages were assessed at £27,000, less than the claims, which were said to represent only a fraction of the losses, and such was the resistance of the ratepayers that an Act had to be obtained to enforce full payment, which was not secured until 1797.

Despite pressure from the government for prosecutions, out of 50 rioters who were investigated, only 17 were ever brought to trial, all before friendly juries hand picked by none other than John Brooke. (So friendly were the juries Brooke selected that a local huntsman, sure of catching the fox, was said to have cried, 'Nothing but a Birmingham jury can save him now!') Only four were found guilty, of whom one was reprieved and two were hanged, but only, according to William Hutton, because they were notorious characters in any case. In other words, nobody was punished for rioting. The Home Office complained about the laxity of the magistrates' investigations and their condoning the intimidation of witnesses, but it made no difference. 

As to the ringleaders, although they were not touched by the law for which they had shown such contempt, they did not prosper by their villainy. Neither Brooke nor Carles long survived the riots. Brooke seriously overreached himself in developing the Ashted estate, ruined many people and was declared bankrupt with debts of over £3000 in 1793. He died in 1802. According to William Hutton (see right-hand column), upon his death, his corpse was arrested, though this is denied in an email from one of his descendants. Despite the fact his lands were worth £600 a year, Carles also became heavily indebted. He died, disgraced and penniless, in 1801, having been arrested many times in the interim. Spencer died in 1823, still wanting the preferment for which he had sacrificed his honour and reputation.

There can be little doubt that the riots inflicted significant damage on Birmingham. Many of the victims were leading members of the community. All suffered terrible setbacks; even the resilient William Hutton was traumatised, and no doubt many of the rest were, too. Much of their energy must have been diverted from their normal business into the rebuilding of their lives. As to the Lunar Society, Joseph Priestley apart, none of the other  members suffered directly in the riots, although William Withering saved his home only by dint of hiring and arming men to beat off rioters who threatened to attack, and Matthew Boulton had assembled a force of men to defend the Manufactory and Soho House if need be. But the Society was never the same again. They continued to meet but felt the loss of Joseph Priestley, and perhaps more importantly, the riots were an attack on everything the Lunaticks stood for - learning, a free spirit of inquiry, tolerance, freedom. They had had their fun seeking knowledge, making discoveries, experimenting, and coming up with new ideas, but all of a sudden, it seemed dangerous to entertain radical ideas.

There are many mysteries and unexplained events connected with the riots, which are described in Denis Martineau's article on the riots,  and in William Hutton's account, written just one month after the event, both of .which are  referenced on the 'Sources of information' page,



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The text of the handbill read in part as follows.

'The second year of Gallic Liberty is nearly expired. At the commencement of the third, on the 14th of this month, it is devoutly to be wished that every enemy to civil and religious despotism would give their sanction to the majestic common cause, by a public celebration of the Anniversary ... Remember - that on the 14th of July the Bastille, that high altar and castle of despotism, fell! - Remember the enthusiasm, peculiar to the cause of Liberty, with which it was attacked! ... But is it possible to forget that your own Parliament is venal; your Ministers hypocritical; your Clergy legal Oppressors; the reigning Family extravagant ... your Taxes partial and oppressive; your Representation a cruel insult upon the sacred rights of Property, Religion, and Freedom? - But on the 14th of this month prove to the sycophants of the day, that you reverence the Olive Branch; that you will sacrifice to public tranquillity till the majority shall exclaim, "The PEACE of Slavery is worse than the WAR of Freedom!" Of that day let tyrants beware!'


'To dispute with the Doctor [Priestley] was deemed the road to preferment. He had already made two Bishops, and there were still several heads which wanted mitres, and others who cast a more humble eye on tithes and glebe lands. The Doctor on his part used some warm expressions, which his friends wished had been omitted.' - William Hutton

'That this infuriated mob was originally instigated by somebody does not admit of a doubt. Men will assemble and riot for want or oppression, for bread or for taxes; but what mechanic will leave his labour and burn his neighbour's house because Church and King are in danger from a few gentlemen dining together to commemorate the French Revolution, if such a notion be not instilled into his mind for such a purpose?' - William Hutton's daughter, Caroline

'I believe the riots would not have taken place, had it not been for two men of desperate fortunes, who probably expected a place or a pension; a hungry Attorney [Brooke], and a leading Justice [Carles]. The first succeeded, and was appointed Barrack Master. To patch up a shattered fortune he drew accommodation bills. He became a bankrupt, ruined many persons, died about the year 1794 many thousand pounds in debt and his corpse, if I remember right, was arrested. I have been informed that his effects paid 18d [7.5p] in the pound. The Justice had succeeded to an estate of about £600 a year. He soon became poor, and was often arrested. He died a year or two after the Attorney, and in March 1810 his effects, in a first and final dividend, paid 2d [0.8p] in the pound.' - William Hutton

'I cannot blame either the King or the Church, though my houses were destroyed in those names, for it was done by people who would have sold their King for a jug of ale, and demolished the Church for a bottle of gin. The few among them who were instigators better understood thirty-nine bottles of wine than the thirty-nine articles. These are the weeds of the Church ...' - William Hutton

'A clergyman [Spencer] attended [the destruction of Joseph Priestley's house] and was charged with examining and even pocketing [Dr Priestley's] manuscripts. I think he paid the Doctor a compliment, by shewing a regard for his works. I will farther do him the justice to believe that he never meant to keep them ... or to sell them ... but only to exchange them with the minister for preferment. There may be fortitude in dying for treason, but there is more profit in getting a living by it.' - William Hutton

'I was avoided as a pestilence; the waves of sorrow rolled over me, and beat me down with multiplied force; every one came heavier than the last. My children were distressed. My wife, through long affliction, ready to quit my own arms for those of death; and I myself reduced to the sad necessity of humbly begging a draught of water at a cottage. What reverse of situation! By the smiles of the inhabitants of Birmingham I acquired a fortune; by an astonishing defect in our police I lost it.' - William Hutton

'The Solicitor of the Treasury was sent from London to conduct the trials of the rioters. He treated me with civility and said, 'If Mr Ryland and I would go to his lodgings at Warwick ... he would shew us a list of the Jury, and we should select twelve names to our satisfaction.' I thanked him, and took the journey accordingly. I was surprised to find they had but ONE sentiment. I returned the paper with an air of disappointment. 'They are all of a sort,' said I, 'you may take which you please.' At that moment, John Brooke, the true blue Church and King's man, and the attorney employed against the sufferers, entered, and as silently as if he had listened behind the door. He had, no doubt, fabricated the list.' - William Hutton 

'The world will be apt to draw this conclusion, none were executed for the riots ... As by the late convulsions in Birmingham, every man was put in fear, many were plundered, some burnt, some ruined, others obliged to fly, two lost their lives, and all this without one breach of the law, this question naturally arises; is our Police upon a respectable footing?' - William Hutton 

 'The Hellish miscreants who committed so many outrages here, by banishing Dr Priestley have almost broke up our Lunar Society'. - James Watt

© 2003, 2006 Bob Miles