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THE PRIESTLEY RIOTS
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.
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.
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,
© 2003, 2006 Bob Miles