A Species Of Punishment Inflicted On Innocence

Simon & Tom Bloor

July 1791 saw one of the most devastating events in the city of Birmingham's history, the so-called Priestley Riots, the background to which was years of resentment and tension between dissenting Unitarian and established churchmen that focused on the campaign for the repeal of the Test and Corporation acts which would allow non Church of England members to hold public office. A leading figure in this movement was Joseph Priestley, the chemist, theologian, philosopher and educator who discovered, amongst other things, oxygen, carbon dioxide, photosynthesis, carbonated water, laughing gas & the pencil eraser. Priestley was also a member of the Lunar Society (an influential group of prominent industrialists & intellectuals that also included Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood), and a strong opponent of slavery and supporter of civil liberties.

Violence Is Temporary

Priestley was increasingly becoming a nuisance to the established religious & political authorities and had earned himself the nickname 'Gunpowder Joe' through his radical stance & use of somewhat inflammatory phraseology (such as referring to having "long since drawn the sword and thrown away the scabbard", or "laying gunpowder grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition").

If The Peace Of Society

The rift between Birmingham's radicals and conservatives finally came to a head on the 14th July 1791, on the occasion of a dinner held at Dadley's hotel on Temple Row to celebrate the second anniversary of the French Revolution. Shortly before the dinner copies of a 'seditious handbill' had been circulated around Birmingham that in part equated the British political system with the deposed French one, and hinted that such a revolution wouldn't be entirely out of place here (it later transpired that the handbill was nothing to do with the diners, but was printed in London and was probably created by the enemies of the Dissenters in order to stir up trouble). In addition, rumours of protests against the dinner had started to abound, and aware of the political mood and eager to avoid conflict with the authorities & their supporters the organisers had held the meal earlier in the day than was advertised, and so by the time a large crowd of protesters had gathered the 80 or so diners had all left (and despite newspaper stories of him calling for "the King's head on a plate" at the event, Priestley hadn't attended the dinner at all). Lacking immediate targets at which to vent their anger, the growing group of protesters began to attack the hotel, but were soon convinced to look for other targets. Fuelled by alcohol and encouraged by corrupt officials, the mob headed for the old & new Unitarian meeting houses which they burned to the ground, from where they proceeded to attack the private houses of known Unitarians & their supporters, Including Priestley himself. Although Priestley & his family were able to flee for their lives, his home, library and laboratory were ransacked and burned, destroying his invaluable collection of scientific instruments and papers.

We Return You

The mob went on to cause mayhem for several days, committing various acts of vandalism, from the grafitting of such phrases as No Philosophers on the city's walls to the looting and destroying of the houses of several prominent figures, including those of John Taylor (of Taylor & Lloyds Bank) and William Hutton, a prolific poet, historian and writer and author of the first history of Birmingham (An History of Birmingham, 1783), who went on to write a detailed account of the event in his Narrative of the Riots of Birmingham, 1791.

Happiness Misery

For his part, Priestly fled to London in fear of his life, eventually going on from there to America, never to return to Birmingham. Before leaving for the USA, he wrote an open letter to the inhabitants of Birmingham, which appeared in Aris's Gazette on 25 July 1791. It ends: "At all events, we return you blessings for curses; and pray that you may soon return to that industry, and those sober manners, for which the inhabitants of Birmingham were formerly distinguished".

The accompanying images, A species of punishment inflicted on innocence 2007 (gouache and collage on paper) are part of an ongoing series of projects developed from research into historic figures & events from Birmingham, our home city. The works are a development of a wall collage originally commissioned for the All at once, together at the same time exhibition at Colony, Birmingham in 2005.

More info:

Joseph Priestley's letter to the people of Birmingham, 21 July 1791 http://www.hibbert-assembly.org.uk/Priestley/letter.htm

William Hutton's Narrative of the Riots of Birmingham, 1791 is here: http://www3.shropshire-cc.gov.uk/etexts/E000366.htm#X04