Today is Bastille Day which I covered in this post, https://www.bookofdaystales.com/bastille-day/ Not coincidentally, the date is also the anniversary of the start of the Priestley Riots (also known as the Birmingham Riots of 1791) which took place from 14 July to 17 July 1791 in Birmingham in England. The rioters’ main targets were religious Dissenters, most notably the politically and theologically controversial Joseph Priestley, known now primarily as an Enlightenment-age chemist. Both local and national issues stirred the passions of the rioters, from disagreements over public library book purchases, to controversies over Dissenters’ attempts to gain full civil rights and their support of the French Revolution.
The riots started with an attack on Birmingham’s Royal Hotel – the site of a banquet organized in sympathy with the French Revolution. Then, beginning with Priestley’s church and home, the rioters attacked or burned four Dissenting chapels, twenty-seven houses, and several businesses. The rioters burned not only the homes and chapels of Dissenters, but also the homes of people they associated with Dissenters, such as members of the scientific Lunar Society.
Over the course of the 18th century, Birmingham became notorious for its riots. In 1714 and 1715, the townspeople, as part of a “Church-and-King” mob, attacked Dissenters (Protestants who did not adhere to the Church of England or follow its practices) in the Sacheverell riots during the London trial of Henry Sacheverell, and in 1751 and 1759 Quakers and Methodists were assaulted. During the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780, large crowds assembled in Birmingham. In 1766, 1782, 1795, and 1800 mobs protested high food prices. One contemporary described Birmingham rioters as the “bunting, beggarly, brass-making, brazen-faced, brazen-hearted, blackguard, bustling, booby Birmingham mob”.
Up until the late 1780s, religious divisions did not appear to affect Birmingham’s elite. Dissenters and Anglicans lived side by side harmoniously: they were on the same town promotional committees; they pursued joint scientific interests in the Lunar Society; and they worked together in local government, united against what they perceived as unruly mobs. After the riots, however, Joseph Priestley argued in his An Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the Birmingham Riots (1791) that this cooperation had not really been as amicable as generally believed. Priestley revealed that disputes over the local library, Sunday Schools, and church attendance had divided Dissenters from Anglicans. In his “Narrative of the Riots in Birmingham” (1816), stationer and Birmingham historian William Hutton agreed, arguing that five events stoked the fires of religious friction: disagreements over inclusion of Priestley’s books in the local public library; concerns over Dissenters’ attempts to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts; religious controversy (particularly involving Priestley); an “inflammatory hand-bill”; and a dinner celebrating the outbreak of the French Revolution.
Once Birmingham Dissenters started to agitate for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which restricted Dissenters’ civil rights (preventing them, for example, from attending the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge, or from holding public office), the semblance of unity among the town’s elite disappeared. Unitarians such as Priestley were at the forefront of the repeal campaign, and orthodox Anglicans grew nervous and angry. After 1787, the emergence of Dissenting groups formed for the sole purpose of overturning these laws began to divide the community. The repeal efforts failed in 1787, 1789, and 1790. Priestley’s support of the repeal and his controversial religious views, which were widely published, inflamed the general public. In February 1790, a group of activists came together not only to oppose the interests of the Dissenters but also to counteract what they saw as the undesirable importation of French Revolutionary ideals. Dissenters by and large supported the French Revolution and its efforts to question the role that monarchy should play in government. One month before the riots, Priestley attempted to found a reform society, the Warwickshire Constitutional Society, which would have supported universal suffrage and short Parliaments. Although this effort failed, the efforts to establish such a society increased tensions in Birmingham.
In addition to these religious and political differences, both the lower-class rioters and their upper-class Anglican leaders had economic complaints against the middle-class Dissenters. They envied the ever-increasing prosperity of these industrialists as well as the power that came with that economic success. Priestley himself had written a pamphlet, An Account of a Society for Encouraging the Industrious Poor (1787), on how best to extract the most work for the smallest amount of money from the poor. Its emphasis on debt collection did not endear him to the poverty-stricken.
The British public debate over the French Revolution, or the Revolution Controversy, lasted from 1789 through 1795. Initially many on both sides of the Channel thought the French would follow the pattern of the English Glorious Revolution of a century before, and the Revolution was viewed positively by a large portion of the British public. Most Britons celebrated the storming of the Bastille in 1789, believing that France’s absolute monarchy should be replaced by a more democratic form of government. In these early days, supporters of the Revolution also believed that Britain’s own system would be reformed as well: voting rights would be broadened and redistribution of Parliamentary constituency boundaries would eliminate electoral abuses.
After the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in which he surprisingly broke ranks with his liberal Whig colleagues to support the French aristocracy, a pamphlet war discussing the Revolution began in earnest. Because Burke had supported the North American colonists in their rebellion against England, his views sent a shockwave through the country. While Burke supported aristocracy, monarchy, and the Established Church, liberals such as Charles James Fox supported the Revolution, and a program of individual liberties, civic virtue and religious toleration, while radicals such as Priestley, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft, argued for a further program of republicanism, agrarian socialism, and abolition of the “landed interest.”
On 11 July 1791, a Birmingham newspaper announced that on 14 July, the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, there would be a dinner at the local Royal Hotel to commemorate the outbreak of the French Revolution; the invitation encouraged “any Friend to Freedom” to attend:
A number of gentlemen intend dining together on the 14th instant, to commemorate the auspicious day which witnessed the emancipation of twenty-six millions of people from the yoke of despotism, and restored the blessings of equal government to a truly great and enlightened nation; with whom it is our interest, as a commercial people, and our duty, as friends to the general rights of mankind, to promote a free intercourse, as subservient to a permanent friendship.
Any Friend to Freedom, disposed to join the intended temperate festivity, is desired to leave his name at the bar of the Hotel, where tickets may be had at Five Shillings each, including a bottle of wine; but no person will be admitted without one.
Dinner will be on table at three o’clock precisely.
Alongside this notice was a threat: “an authentic list” of the participants would be published after the dinner. On the same day, “an ultra-revolutionary” handbill, written by James Hobson (although his authorship was not known at the time), entered circulation. Town officials offered 100 guineas for information regarding the publication of the handbill and its author, to no avail. The Dissenters found themselves forced to plead ignorance and decry the “radical” ideas promoted by the handbill. It was becoming clear by 12 July that there would be trouble at the dinner. On the morning of 14 July graffiti such as “destruction to the Presbyterians” and “Church and King for ever” were scrawled across the town. At this point, Priestley’s friends, fearing for his safety, dissuaded him from attending the dinner.
About 90 resolute sympathizers of the French Revolution came to celebrate on the 14th. The banquet was led by James Keir, an Anglican industrialist who was a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. When the guests arrived at the hotel at 2 or 3 p.m., they were greeted by 60 or 70 protesters who temporarily dispersed while yelling, rather bizarrely and confusingly, “no popery.” By the time the celebrants ended their dinner, around 7 or 8 p.m., a crowd of hundreds had gathered. The rioters, who “were recruited predominantly from the industrial artisans and labourers of Birmingham”, threw stones at the departing guests and sacked the hotel. The crowd then moved on to the Quaker meeting-house, until someone yelled that the Quakers “never trouble themselves with anything, neither on one side nor the other” and convinced them instead to attack the New Meeting chapel, where Priestley presided as minister. The New Meeting chapel was burned to the ground, quickly followed by the Old Meeting, another Dissenting chapel.
The rioters proceeded to Priestley’s home, Fairhill at Sparkbrook. Priestley barely had time to evacuate and he and his wife fled from Dissenting friend to friend during the riots. Writing shortly after the event, Priestley described the first part of the attack, which he witnessed from a distance:
It being remarkably calm, and clear moon-light, we could see to a considerable distance, and being upon a rising ground, we distinctly heard all that passed at the house, every shout of the mob, and almost every stroke of the instruments they had provided for breaking the doors and the furniture. For they could not get any fire, though one of them was heard to offer two guineas for a lighted candle; my son, whom we left behind us, having taken the precaution to put out all the fires in the house, and others of my friends got all the neighbours to do the same. I afterwards heard that much pains was taken, but without effect, to get fire from my large electrical machine, which stood in the library.
His son, William, stayed behind with others to protect the family home, but they were overcome and the property was eventually looted and razed to the ground. Priestley’s valuable library, scientific laboratory, and manuscripts were largely lost in the flames.
The Earl of Aylesford attempted to stem the mounting violence on the night of the 14th, but despite having the help of other magistrates, he was unable to control the crowd. On the 15th, the mob liberated prisoners from the local gaol. Thomas Woodbridge, the Keeper of the Prison, deputized several hundred people to help him quell the mob, but many of these joined in with the rioters themselves. The crowd destroyed John Ryland’s home, Baskerville House, and drank the supplies of liquor which they found in the cellar. When the newly appointed constables arrived on the scene, the mob attacked and disarmed them. One man was killed. The local magistrates and law enforcement, such as it was, did nothing further to restrain the mob and did not read the Riot Act until the military arrived on 17 July. Other rioters burned down banker John Taylor’s home at Bordesley Park.
Contemporary accounts record that the mob’s last sustained assault was around 8 p.m. on the 17th. About 30 “hard core” rioters attacked the home of William Withering, an Anglican who attended the Lunar Society with Priestley and Keir. But Withering, aided by a group of hired men, managed to fend them off. When the military finally arrived to restore order on the 17th and 18th, most of the rioters had disbanded, although there were rumours that mobs were destroying property in Alcester and Bromsgrove.
All in all, four Dissenting churches had been severely damaged or burned down and twenty-seven homes had been attacked, many looted and burned. Having begun by attacking those who attended the Bastille celebration on the 14th, the “Church-and-King” mob had finished up by extending their targets to include Dissenters of all kinds as well as members of the Lunar Society.
Priestley and other Dissenters blamed the government for the riots, believing that William Pitt and his supporters had instigated them. However, it seems from the evidence that the riots were actually organized by local Birmingham officials. Some of the rioters acted in a co-ordinated fashion and seemed to be led by local officials during the attacks, prompting accusations of premeditation. Some Dissenters discovered that their homes were to be attacked several days before the rioters arrived, leading them to believe that there was a prepared list of victims. The “disciplined nucleus of rioters”, which numbered only thirty or so, directed the mob and stayed sober throughout the three to four days of rioting. Unlike the hundreds of others who joined in, they could not be bribed with alcohol to stop their destructions.
Witnesses agreed “that the magistrates promised the rioters protection so long as they restricted their attacks to the meeting-houses and left persons and property alone”. The magistrates also refused to arrest any of the rioters and released those that had been arrested. Instructed by the national government to prosecute the riot’s instigators, these local officials dragged their heels. When finally forced to try the ringleaders, they intimidated witnesses and made a mockery of the trial proceedings. Only seventeen of the fifty rioters who had been charged were ever brought to trial; four were convicted, of whom one was pardoned, two were hanged, and the fourth was transported to Botany Bay. But Priestley and others believed that these men were found guilty not because they were rioters but because “they were infamous characters in other respects”.
Although he had been forced to send troops to Birmingham to quell the disturbances, King George III commented, “I cannot but feel better pleased that Priestley is the sufferer for the doctrines he and his party have instilled, and that the people see them in their true light.” The national government forced the local residents to pay restitution to those whose property had been damaged: the total eventually amounted to £23,000. However, the process took many years, and most residents received much less than the value of their property.
Initially Priestley wanted to return and deliver a sermon on the Bible verse “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” but he was dissuaded by friends convinced that it was too dangerous. Instead, he wrote in his Appeal:
I was born an Englishman as well [as] any of you. Though labouring under civil disabilities, as a Dissenter, I have long contributed my share to the support of government, and supposed I had the protection of its constitution and laws for my inheritance. But I have found myself greatly deceived; and so may any of you, if, like me, you should, with or without cause, be so unfortunate as to incur popular odium. For then, as you have seen in my case, without any form of trial whatever, without any intimation of your crime, or of your danger, your houses and all your property may be destroyed, and you may not have the good fortune to escape with life, as I have done….What are the old French Lettres de Cachet, or the horrors of the late demolished Bastile, compared to this?
Times don’t change much.
In the late 18th century poor harvests in England resulted in high food prices and the resultant opening of soup kitchens to provide cheap, nourishing food for the poor. In 1793 the Birmingham inventor and industrialist, Matthew Boulton, noted a recipe in one of his notebooks for a soup intended to be sold for a penny a quart. This was a hearty broth made up of stewed beef and vegetables served with bread. It is now known as Birmingham soup and seems appropriate for today. Modern chefs have recreated the dish and you can easily do the same. Here’s the original notebook recipe which you can click to enlarge.
It’s basically a hearty beef broth (containing lots of beef) combined with dried peas, oatmeal, and barley, plus some onions, salt and pepper. “Beeves cheeks” can be modernized as “beef cheeks,” that is, cheap stewing beef, such as chuck. Boulton suggests boiling the meat one day, then adding the other ingredients the next day. This is generally a good plan for soups and stews. The whole is finished off with bread which the recipe suggests is best diced and fried in lard (i.e. croutons).