14 July 1791: the ‘Priestley riots’ sweep Britain

Joseph Priestley © Getty Images
Priestley: mob burned his house

The storming of the Bastille on this day in 1789 sparked two very different outbreaks of civil unrest. The first was, of course, the French Revolution, which deposed the monarchy in France. But the second had completely the opposite effect. It was in support of the king and the Church – and it took place in Birmingham.

The ‘Midlands Enlightenment’ of the 18th century gave birth to the splendidly named dining club, the Lunar Society. Its members included philosophers, scientists, and wealthy industrialists, who were gaining wealth and power as Britain was transformed by the industrial revolution.

As an intellectual talking shop, the Lunar Society was sympathetic to the ideals they saw in the French Revolution. They agitated for increased civil rights, and clashed with the Church of England. For that reason, they were branded as ‘Dissenters’. The most controversial of them was theologian Joseph Priestley.

To mark the second ‘Bastille Day’, the Lunar Society decided to hold a banquet in the revolution’s honour. As Priestley would later complain, this gave the authorities the perfect excuse to put an end to this troublesome organisation.

A mob was whipped up on a diet of religious fervour, booze, loyalty to the king, and suspicion of those most suspicious of people – the French. But what really got the mob going was the bourgeois mentality of the Lunar Society.

The industrialists were out to make money. And while they admired the ideals of the revolutions in France and America, they were also pragmatic. Priestley had written a pamphlet in 1787 on how to get the most work out of the working class for the least cost.

So it was on this summer night in 1791 that the mob overturned the dining tables, burnt Priestley’s house to the ground, and then rampaged through Birmingham and into the countryside, sniffing out the homes of other industrialists and dissenters to loot and destroy.

It would, no doubt, be scant consolation to Joseph Priestley that the uprising that forced him to flee for his life came to be known as the Priestley riots.

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