The Priestley Riots

Following a dinner to celebrate the storming of the Bastille two years earlier, the Priestley Riots broke out in Birmingham on the night of 14 July 1791 and engulfed the city for the next three days.

Birmingham was a somewhat divided city in the 18th century, and rioting seemed to be something the citizens did fairly frequently. Clashes were most often between Dissenters (Protestants who did not adhere to the Church of England) and everyone else. By the end of the century, tensions were running high due to such important disputes as the collection in the local library, Sunday schools, and church attendance. The final match that lit the torch seems to have been a dinner held to celebrate the outbreak of the French Revolution, and most of the mob’s ire centred on Joseph Priestly, a Dissenting minister who was trying to have the Test and Corporation Acts, which restricted Dissenters’ civil rights, repealed. He was so widely hated his friends had to dissuade him from attending the dinner, for fear of him coming to harm.

Rumblings started a few days before the dinner, and it was clear there was going to be trouble, but the authorities did nothing to prevent it. By the time the dinner finished, around 7 or 8 p.m., hundreds of protesters had gathered outside the hotel where it was being held, and they pelted the attendees with stones before sacking the hotel. They moved on to a nearby Quaker meetinghouse but didn’t destroy it. Instead, they attacked the New Meeting chapel, where Priestley was minister, and burned it to the ground.

Next they attacked Priestley’s home. Priestley and his wife only just had time to evacuate before the place was sacked and burned, destroying his library, scientific library, and manuscripts.

As the riots entered a second day, the Earl of Aylesford belatedly tried to get control over the situation, but by then no control could be had. The mob liberated prisoners from the local gaol (because that’s a great idea when everyone’s already out of control) and continued destroying homes and buildings throughout the city. Local law enforcement stood by and didn’t even bother reading the Riot Act until the military arrived on 17 July.

By that time, Birmingham was essentially shut down. The place was a mess and no business at all was being conducted. The riot died down over the 17 and 18, leaving a swathe of destruction that included four Dissenting churches and 27 homes.

Priestley and other Dissenters believed the government was behind the riots, and they may have been partially right: there’s some evidence the riots were organized by local Birmingham officials (but not by William Pitt, as Priestley believed). The national government ordered the local officials to start an inquiry, and they dragged their feet, eventually holding an absurd show trial that included only 17 of the 50 rioters that were caught. Of the four who were convicted, one was pardoned, two hanged, and the fourth transported, though Priestley and others believed these men were only found guilty because they were basically bad news even without the riot. Birmingham became a city “divided into two parties who hate one another mortally,” according to industrialist James Watt. Priestley wanted to return and deliver a sermon scolding the rioters, but his friends convinced him not to be so suicidal. Many of the Dissenters left Birmingham after that, leaving the city far more conservative than it had been. Remaining supporters of the French Revolution wisely decided not to hold a dinner the following year.

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