The Return of the Russells to England

Image: James Skey (1754-1838) who married Martha Russell in 1798. From a miniature painting by James  Millar (1797). Jeyes, S H, The Russells of Birmingham in the French Revolution and America 1791-1814 (London, George Allen & Company, Ltd., 1911)

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

One of William Russell’s friends in England, James Skey, went out to America in 1798 to marry Martha Russell. He, too, kept a detailed journal of the voyage, and his impressions of American life and manners.

Martha’s marriage to the twice-widowed Skey took place in Middletown on 13 December 1798, and in 1799 the new Mr and Mrs Skey returned to England. Two years later Mary Russell and her brother also set out for home, followed shortly afterwards by their father.

It is evident from the diaries that though they relished the adventure and experience of being in America, all the Russells missed the intellectual life of Birmingham and the regular contact with English society. Yet Mary’s account of the voyage home – in which she describes the high sails of the ship as ‘sky scrapers’ – is tinged with sadness, for her father could not return to England with them because England was still at war with France, and he owned an estate in Ardennes, the purchase of which had been negotiated for him by his Birmingham agent, Zacheus Walker.

There he now settled, spending his time reading the works of Erasmus Darwin, creating a garden and missing his daughters (his son Thomas having settled in Paris). William became a French citizen in 1807. That year William’s daughter Martha died, and in 1810 James Skey married her sister, Mary Russell. Skey lobbied politicians for his father-in-law to be allowed to return to England, which was finally permitted in 1814. William Russell spent the last four years of his life with his daughter and son-in-law at Upton-on-Severn, and was buried at St Philip’s, Birmingham, in 1818, 27 years after his home at Showell Green was destroyed by the mob.

The Russells in America

Image: New York City in 1768. Jeyes, S H, The Russells of Birmingham in the French Revolution and America 1791-1814 (London, George Allen & Company, Ltd., 1911).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

On 22 June 1795 the Russells left Paris for Le Havre, from where they set sail for America on 3 July, landing at New York on 22 August. Mary Russell’s diary records her delight at the rural beauties of Staten Island after so long at sea. They stayed only a short time in New York, where yellow fever was rife, before setting off (in their own coach, brought with them from Paris) for Philadelphia, where they planned a reunion with their old friend Joseph Priestley.

No sooner had they found lodgings in Philadelphia than he called on them and showed them round, before accompanying them to Northumberland, near his home. “Dr P-s family all well & very glad to see us the situation of Northd is beautifull just on the forks of the Susquahanna it is a small place & the roads about it are very good,” wrote Mary approvingly.1 Her brother Thomas recorded that Dr Priestley had:

“bought a frame house, and it is fitted up with all that neatness for which his wife is well known, but still it is a mere hut in comparison with the one they lived in formerly. His eldest son, Joseph, lives with his wife in a large brick house. William and Henry, his other sons, cultivate a farm three miles from town. The Doctor is enveloped in his studies…”

By 1797 the Russells were living in Middletown, Connecticut. Mary wrote:

‘The universal custom of having slaves in Virginia & Maryland my father found very disagreeable & the cruel manner in which they were in general treated must shock the feelings of every friend to humanity whose heart is not hardened by education & habit of regarding the Negroes in a light not superior to Beasts.”3

She also writes of snowy winters, sleigh rides, dancing, and cases of rabies.

The Escape of the Russells from Birmingham to France

Image: William Russell (1740-1818). Jeyes, S H, The Russells of Birmingham in the French Revolution and America 1791-1814 (London, George Allen & Company, Ltd., 1911).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The Russell family set sail from Falmouth the following August, but four days into the voyage their ship was intercepted by a French frigate and they were taken prisoner. For the next 40 days while the ship hunted the coastline for other prizes, they slept fully-dressed on the floor among the ship’s stores and vermin, sharing one spoon for their food, the passing days marked by thrice-daily singing of the Marseillaise. Far from fainting with fear, Martha seems to have got a taste for life on board, writing of the exhilaration of chasing after other vessels at 12 knots, and waiting eagerly to see if the boarding party had found any potatoes in the captured ship – potatoes being something they were missing, evidently. They were also impressed with the French sailors’ dancing.

Over the course of five months the Russells were transferred to several different ships, manned by crews whom Martha describes as smelling shockingly of garlic and swarming with “live creatures”. At last, on 26 December 1794 they were set ashore at the French port of Brest and set off for Paris.

Mary Russell’s diary takes up the account to describe life in Paris over the next six months. The family took an apartment overlooking the Tuileries, but though richly furnished it was not a luxurious life. That January (1795) it was so cold that the water froze as they washed their hands, and bread was scarce. In post-Robespierre Paris it was unwise to appear on the streets looking too clean or well-dressed – marking one out as a possible aristocrat. Sitting in on debates in the National Convention, they were unimpressed with the new French regime, Martha describing them as for the most part “dirty, mean, shabby-looking fellows… some in fur caps, others in red and blue caps, some apparently in dirty nightgowns, others shabby great coats, many that had not been shaved for a week at least, and some that had not a comb in their hair that day.”

“Madame Guillotine” had not retired – William Russell and his son went to an execution where, wrote Mary, they saw 16 people guillotined in 13 minutes. The women visited galleries, museums, cathedrals, abbeys, and the Sèvres china factory, Mary describing the architecture at some length. At the Palais Royal, “the beauty and elegance of the shops …. was beyond description at night when they were all lighted up, it was past conception enchanting.” They met Mary Wollstonecraft, another radical, then living in France with her American lover, Gilbert Imlay, as his wife. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters had been published in 1787, and her best-known work Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. The Russells several times attended the theatre with “Mrs Imlay” and Mary Russell compared the English and French stage versions of heaven and hell, observing that at the Paris Opera “the French heaven was I must confess much superior in taste and beauty to the English tho’ the English hell was far more terrific and dreadfull than the French”.

Mary and Martha Russell and the Birmingham Riots of 1791

Image: Destruction of Dr Priestley’s House and Laboratory, Fair Hill, Birmingham, July 14 1791. After a picture sketched on the spot, now in the passion of Madame Belloc, London.  Jeyes, S H, The Russells of Birmingham in the French Revolution and America 1791-1814 (London, George Allen & Company, Ltd., 1911).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

While Lady Catherine Wright was busy in her private laboratory in Devon and struggling to understand the works of Joseph Priestley, Priestley himself was becoming increasingly the object of suspicion in Birmingham. The shock waves from the French Revolution in 1789 crossed the Channel and caused much nervousness, and any groups perceived as radical attracted mistrust.

Nonconformists such as Priestley were the main targets of the episode known as the “Priestley Riots”, which took place in Birmingham in 1791. The catalyst for these riots was a dinner at a Birmingham hotel, planned by a group of leading Birmingham nonconformists to take place on 14 July, to mark the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and commemorate the liberation of the French people. Notwithstanding the diners’ assurances of patriotism, a mob chanting “Church and King for ever!” attacked their homes. The riots lasted five days, during which time the houses of a number of prominent citizens were ransacked and burned, and the occupants had to flee for their lives. Priestley, who on advice had not attended the dinner, lost all his scientific equipment and papers and left Birmingham, never to return. Some of the rioters died when they were too drunk to escape the flames which they themselves had started at Easy Hill, on the site of the present Baskerville House. The belated arrival of the militia finally put an end to the disorder.

Among those forced to escape were Mary, Martha and Tom Russell and their father, William, who was a friend of Joseph Priestley and one of the guests at the dinner. The Russells’ home, Showell Green House near Moseley, was one of the houses destroyed. The Russell women kept journals which give vivid accounts of the events of those five days and their subsequent travels.

With the shouts of the mob in the distance, the Russell girls packed up some of their possessions before escaping on foot across fields to Warstock. Next day came the news that their home at Showell Green was in flames. The girls and their young brother set off to walk by moonlight to Alcester, hiding under hedges when mobs of rioters on horseback galloped by. At Alcester they met up again with their father and were able to take their own chaise and travel on to Stratford and London. There they found the Priestleys. After a few days the Russells returned to Birmingham, staying with their uncle in New Hall Street while William Russell courted further controversy by endeavouring to get restitution for those whose homes had been damaged or destroyed in the riots. Priestley emigrated to America in April 1794, promising William Russell that Mary and Martha should have a safe home with him if they wished to join him there.

Lady Catherine Wright

Image: Portrait of Dr William Withering from an engraving

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Another of Withering’s lively female correspondents was Lady Catherine Wright of Teignmouth, Devon. She was the wife of a diplomat, Sir James Wright. Lady Catherine became a pupil of Dr Withering, in a sort of early “distance learning” project. In a letter to Withering dated 30 November 1784 Catherine outlines her early education. It seems to have consisted of little more than picking up crumbs of knowledge from her brother’s sympathetic tutor, who gave her “an earnest desire after Studies not suitable to my Sex”.

She then explains what led her to a love of chemistry. Her husband had bought a box of old books at an auction for the sake of one book he wanted. He had given her “the rubbish”, and she had found herself reading works on alchemy and chemistry from the previous century. From these she had progressed to modern authors, including Joseph Priestley. She was also developing what was clearly an evolutionary train of thought:

“I have found in my own mind a supposition that originally all Matter was one & the same in all things, the same Principles variously modified and harmonized, producing the different Class, Order, Genus, Species & Individuals of this Created World – & of Worlds unknown & beyond the limits of us finite beings to explore. If this position is false all my other fairy Dreams are so likewise…”

Withering was clearly intrigued and agreed to instruct Lady Catherine, sending her notes and questions to copy and discuss, reading lists, and instructions on how to lay out chemistry notes.

Catherine grumbled “That the Generalty of Men have Agreed that Women ought to be kept in perpetual Ignorance & the most profound Darkness, respecting every part of Literature beyond a Book of Cookery, is to be accounted for, & not greatly to be wonderd at” .

Having got that off her chest, her  first task was to define for her tutor “the six classes of Chemistry” (Saline, Inflammable, Metallic, Earthy, Watery, Aerial). She is, she says, “…rather more informd… of Many of the Species, than Women usualy are, for the most enlighten’d among us are indeed very poor in knowledge, it is but once in many Centuries that a Mrs Carter is produced. I have no right to hope that I can ever advance so far in Science as ever to become an Useful Member of Society….” Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806) had translated from Italian Algarotti’s Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explain’d for the Use of the Ladies (1739), and by the 1780s was widely regarded as one of the foremost female intellects; Catherine Wright clearly admired her.

In August 1785 Catherine was impatient to get on with experiments and plainly feeling thwarted:

We have in these parts a variety of Earths. I long to make some Experiments on them. But I must begin with purchasing an Hydrostatic Balance. I shoud be somewhat quicker in my proceedings, but a Married Woman cannot allways act just as she pleases. I dare say that is very right, & I have great indulgencies. Just now I wish to sit alone & thus converse with you but am obliged to quit Doctor Withering to attend on a set of unentertaining beings who will do me the Honor of a Visit. Sir James has also a Concert below stairs this Evening, at which I am likewise a Bad performer… You can scarcely figure to your self how cross I have felt lately, from being obliged to see much more Company than I ever wish to Mix in again….

In December 1787 Withering received a letter from Catherine which he annotated soberly, ‘Curious statements’, in which she referred to the fashionable idea of ‘animal magnetism’ and wrote teasingly:

“I was the other day in Company with a Practical Philosopher, who held this Animal Magnetism in great contempt. I lookd earnestly in silence at him to understand the better…. When on a sudden he insisted on my trying no tricks on him, for he knew that the simple looking at him, with an intent to affect him, woud be sufficient to give him spasms & make him extreamly ill… This declaration turn’d the laugh on my side intirely. If I was to tell you the Effects I have produced, or fancy I have produced (for possibly I do not Exist) you woud say God help her poor Weak Mind – I have not read Doctor Priestlys reasoning on Matter & Spirit at large, only Extracts in the Review… I met with a Philosopher lately of some Note who assures me, there is no such thing as either Matter or Spirit. I was almost tempted to stick a Pin in him….”

Catherine did not expect Withering to approve of “animal magnetism” (hypnotism), but recounted a demonstration she had witnessed, performed by a Doctor de Mainaude:


“…..a patient is so wrought on as to fall into a deep sleep, some are thrown into strong convulsions… When I was there, I saw such Extraordinary things happen that I do not venture to relate, because I think it impossible any one should give credit without ocular demonstrations. Several have been cured of Gall Stones…”

After this the correspondence between Catherine and Withering seems to have ceased. Perhaps he felt she was straying from the straight path of science into the realms of the fantastic.

Mary Knowles

Image: Portrait of Dr William Withering from an engraving.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Mary Knowles (1733-1807) was a scholarly Quaker well-known to Samuel Johnson (who however was more attracted by her looks than her intellect). Mary was also a friend of the philosopher Henry Moyes, and the Birmingham physician Dr William Withering. As Withering’s friend, she would not let him get away with patronising women, writing to him in 1783 to challenge comments he had evidently made to Moyes:

“Women to possess understandings of “masculine strength”, is an idea intolerable to most men bred up amongst each other in the proud confines of a College. There indeed they seem to monopolize learning, but happily, intellect cannot be confined there; and as general education increases, Scholars will more & more discover to the confusion of their pride, that genius is shower’d down on heads, as seemeth Heaven good, whether drest in caps of gauze or velvet – in large grey wiggs, or small silk bonnets. Here I blush to observe that my Antithesis has accidentally brought forward too picturesquely, the poor small head thus sedulously pleading, not for itself but for its injur’d Sisterhood… The foregoing subject has led me very far from what I at first intended, which was to express to dear Dr Withering some part of the pleasure I feel in the consciousness of being esteem’d by him – but to be praised by him, is too great a tryal for my humility. Yet what meaneth he by his ingeniously supposed feminine characteristic? to wit, “There is however a vivacity & a distinctness in the operations of her imagination that mark her for a female.” Describe this distinctness, give me an illustration, that I may try to trace the symptom of its true cause, for much do I ween that it is deduceable to the circumstances of situation, early habits & all the etceteras that are pendant on our universal oppression…”

Withering’s comfortable ideal of “the amiable female character” was tested by the likes of Mary Knowles and at times he was plainly baffled by women and not always aware he was having his leg pulled!

Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, the “Queen of the Blues”

Image: C  F Von Breda, Matthew Boulton, 1792. Oil on Canvas. Boulton was the most famous of Birmingham’s toymakers. The portrait shows him examining items from his geological collections with Soho Manufactory, the biggest factory in the world in the background. Boulton produced buttons, buckles, steel jewellery and silverware at Soho. Boulton had many customers and contacts in the commercial world. Mrs Montagu was one of them.

Image from: Soho House Museum, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800) was the wife of Edward Montagu. The Montagu wealth came from collieries in Newcastle, which she managed for her husband. But she was most at home in London. There at their Hill Street house she presided over intellectual assemblies attended by writers, artists, actors and philosophers, male and female. These became known as “blue-stocking gatherings”, after one man who regularly attended them in blue, rather than formal black, stockings; Mrs Montagu became known as “Queen of the Bluestockings” or “Queen of the Blues”.

A customer and frequent correspondent of Matthew Boulton, in 1771 she visited the Soho Manufactory, which she referred to as “that great Temple of Les Beaux Arts, ye Soho Manufactory”. Over the years she ordered ormolu and silverware from Soho (part of her silver dinner service is on display at Soho House). Her letters to Matthew Boulton give us some insight into the way she thought. Of her visit to Soho she wrote:

“To behold the secrets of Chymistry, & the mechanick powers, so employ’d, & exerted, is very delightful. I consider the Machines you have at work as so many useful working subjects to Great Brittain of your own Creation: the exquisite Taste in the forms which you give them to work upon, is another National advantage. I had rather see my Country in continual contention of arts than of arms. The Victories of Soho, over every other Manufacture, instead of making Widows & Orphans, as happens even to the conquering side in War, makes marriages & Christenings. The poor will marry whenever they have hopes that Wives & Children will get a maintenance. Go on then Sir to triumph over the French in taste, & to embellish your Country with useful inventions & elegant productions. “1

After 1775 Mrs Montagu commissioned James “Athenian” Stuart to design her new London house in Portman Square. Here the “Queen of the Blues” would reign in even greater style. Francis Eginton was to make “pictures for the ceilings” (the “mechanical paintings” he developed were produced at Soho for a time). Boulton seems to have been given the difficult task of finding a supplier of clear plate glass. This was just becoming available and Mrs Montagu accepted that some compromise would be necessary:

“…My eating room & that Venetian window of my Great Room which looks to Hampstead &c & also one of the Bow windows of ye Great Room which looks to ye Country must be of Plate glass. The other 2 windows of the Bow only look upon houses & streets… the clearer the medium through which we see the works & images of the great Creator, the more beauty appears, but the works & occupations of Man appear better thro’ a little mist…

At length she apologised to Boulton: “I am quite ashamed to be so often and so very troublesome, but you will pardon me on account of the importance of ye object, a Philosopher wd laugh at my reckoning a House an important Object, I am not a Philosopher, & whoever is not, is apt to consider things according to their bulk, & I am sure in that view my House is not a trifling bagatelle.”   There were many other problems and Mrs Montagu became increasingly frustrated:”…I have very little hope of assistance from my architect Mr Stuart who is idle & inattentive & his assistant seems….. tho’ an ingenious draughtsman not very alert in business, I believe Mr Stuart made choice of him as men do of their Wives, for their passive qualities rather than serviceable talents…”

The construction site became a public attraction and the supervisor had to issue tickets to limit disruption. But at last the house was finished and in 1781 Mrs Montagu moved in. At Portman Square she entertained Queen Charlotte and the six princesses – and gave annual breakfasts for London chimney sweeps.

Maria Edgeworth

Image: Portrait of Maria Edgeworth, an engraving based on a portrait by Chappel.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

While Keir was working on his Dialogues on Chemistry for children, another Lunar Society member, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, was working with his daughter, Maria, on the revision of their work Practical Education. This had been first published in 1798 and was re-published as Essays on Practical Education in 1801. Maria (1768-1849) was the third child of Edgeworth and his first wife. The Edgeworth family home was in Ireland but they spent a good deal of time in England. While staying in Lichfield near his friend Thomas Day in the early 1770s, Edgeworth met and fell in love with Honora Sneyd, whom he subsequently married after the first Mrs Edgeworth died. Meanwhile Maria had a conventional girl’s education at a school in Derby. While she was away at school her father and his second wife began drafting educational stories for children, in which the central characters were a boy and girl, Harry and Lucy. Maria would later pick up this project where her father and stepmother left off and go on to write a whole series of books and stories for children.

Practical Education was also something which Richard and Honora Edgeworth had begun together and abandoned. Twenty years later, Maria and her father joined forces to complete it. The work was in three volumes. The first dealt with the education of very young children, with sections on suitable toys, and the teaching of reading, obedience, truth, and how to attract and keep a child’s attention. The next volume covered the teaching of specific subjects including grammar, classics, geography, arithmetic, chemistry and mechanics, and there was a final volume on how to develop taste, imagination, judgement, prudence and other desirable characteristics in children. Maria wrote more than half of the text. The publication of the work did not attract great attention in Britain, but it was widely admired on the Continent.

But it was as a novelist that Maria really made her name. Her best-known work today is Castle Rackrent (1800), a novel set in Ireland in the 1780s; this and her other ‘Irish’ works were greatly admired by Walter Scott.

Educating Amelia

Image: Portrait of James Keir and his granddaughter.

Image from: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Day’s problems with his two ‘experimental’ potential wives arose from his belief that he could impose his own ideas and values on them. A different approach was to use a girl’s natural curiosity as the instrument of her education. About 1805, James Keir, Lunar Society member, chemist and metallurgist, wrote a work entitled Dialogues on Chemistry Between a Father and his Daughter , for the benefit of his daughter, Amelia. Amelia would have been about 25 by this time, so the sizeable work (over 300 pages) was perhaps based on conversations and informal lessons between them when she was younger. The work, which never seems to have been published, is in two parts. Part I takes the form of a dialogue between Amelia and her father. Amelia complains that the chemistry books are “full of hard words”, especially her father’s well-known Dictionary of Chemistry. He replies: “My Dictionary was not written for such little girls as you, but for persons who know as much or more than myself.” Amelia observes that in that case it would be better if he wrote a book for “ignorant persons like me”, and her father agrees, suggesting that if their conversations are written down, “Then all these Conversations will make a book on Chemistry for Boys and Girls, or even perhaps for such grown up Gentlemen and Ladies, as may be, however accomplished in other things, Boys and Girls in Chemistry”.

In the questions and answers which follow, the basic precepts of chemistry are explained using everyday examples to get the ideas across. Part II “The Chemical History of Substances” deals in detail with such subjects as oxygen, the chemical properties of air, combustible substances, alkalis, earths, and so on, and would give any young person reading it a solid grounding in chemistry.

Sabrina and Lucretia: a failed experiment

Image: Portrait of Thomas Day, an engraving based on a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

If Matthew Boulton seems to have favoured the traditional approach with his children, some members of the Lunar Society adopted more radical schemes of female education. We do not know what ideas Thomas Day had for Ann Boulton’s education, but he was an idealistic young disciple of Rousseau, who favoured freedom rather than strict discipline for children. Day disliked the way girls were brought up to think of little beyond frivolity and fashion. This made it difficult for him to find a suitable wife. He hit on the idea of adopting two young orphan girls, both of whom were to be trained and educated to take on the role of the future Mrs Day. His plan was to marry whichever of them proved most amenable to his training, and to apprentice the other to some suitable trade. He thought he could transform the girls into his image of the perfect wife – someone of high virtue and courage, with a taste for literature, science and philosophy, but with the simplest tastes in clothes, food and way of life.

The experiment was a failure – the girls were argumentative and liked pretty things. After a while he gave up on Lucretia; true to his word, she was apprenticed to a milliner. He persevered longer with Sabrina, but eventually abandoned hope of ever moulding her into the sort of wife material he was looking for, and sent her away to boarding school. Later she married his friend John Bicknell.  Day (who eventually married Esther Milnes, the daughter of a well-to-do Chesterfield merchant) wrote what was perhaps the first children’s best-seller, The History of Sandford and Merton, about Harry Sandford and Tommy Merton and their adventures and schooling – rather different from Harry Potter and Hogwarts Academy, but it went through many editions and remained in print for almost a century!

Miss Ann Boulton

Image: The drawing room at Soho House, Handsworth near Birmingham. Ann Boulton (1768-1829) lived at Soho House until after her brother’s marriage in 1817. The room provided Anne with an opportunity to practice her music. Matthew Boulton sent her a pianoforte, similar to the one in the photograph in 1801.  There is no known portrait of Anne Boulton.

Image from: Soho House Museum, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

The members of the Lunar Society were, almost by definition, committed to the idea of education. But what that meant for daughters and wives tended to be different from what it meant for sons. “Improving” reading, French, music, dancing, drawing and embroidery formed the main elements of the typical middle-class young woman’s curriculum. Of the sciences, botany was the only one considered even vaguely “suitable” for girls. When Matthew Boulton was thinking of sending his daughter, Ann, away to school and asked his friend John Whitehurst to have a look at a school in London for him, Whitehurst went to see the place but wrote to Boulton ‘The education of girls appears to me of more real importance than that of boys” – by which he meant that greater care needed to be taken. He recommended that Ann should be educated at home, and with fellow Lunar Society member Thomas Day drew up a plan for her education (which has not been found), which he estimated would cost  £25 per annum, adding “I mean to include all the branches of Education which in a general way cost £70 per annum.”

Ann Boulton did eventually go away to school for a time, when she was about 10 years old, but did not receive such an extensive education as her younger brother, Matthew Robinson Boulton, who was educated with a view to him taking over the business at Soho in due course. While at school, Ann studied English, French, drawing, history and geography. Later, she learnt music from a Mr Harris in Birmingham, botany from Boulton’s friend Dr William Withering, and embroidery from Mary Linwood, a celebrated embroiderer of so-called “needle paintings” in Leicester.

The Lunar Men and the Status of Women

Image: Mrs Joseph Priestley, by C F von Breda, 1793. Oil on Canvas. Mary Priestley was the wife of Dr Joseph Priestley and brother of John Wilkinson, the iron master. Joseph Priestley was heavily dependent on Mary to manage his household whilst he concentrated on his research, writing and experiments. She was a highly intelligent companion for her husband. A French visitor to Priestley’s house near Birmingham in 1784, described Mrs Priestley and her daughter as “distinguished by vivacity, intelligence, and gentleness of manners”

Image from: Soho House Museum, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

Some of the Lunar Society members may have had a narrow view of women’s abilities and place in society, but others were quite used to dealing with women who were making their own way in the world. The banker of Matthew Boulton and James Watt for many years was Charlotte Matthews of London, who took on the financial business for Boulton & Watt after the death of her husband, William Matthews. Charlotte also became a close friend of the Boulton and Watt families.

Watt was by no means a feminist, telling his daughter by his first  wife before her marriage:  “It is his province to order and yours to obey, nor are you ever to dispute his will even in indifferent matters”, yet his second wife, Ann, was herself something of a chemist, the daughter of a linen bleacher and able to understand and share her husband’s technical and scientific interests and concerns to a considerable degree, so that he was able to write to her on technical matters when he was away from home.

In the Lunar men’s wider circle were women like the writers Fanny Burney (Matthew Boulton recommended his son to read her best-selling novel Evelina), Anna Seward and Hester Thrale, and the astronomer Caroline Herschel, who helped her better-known brother William in his research.

In Birmingham and the Midlands, from 1766 onwards members of the Lunar Society  met at one another’s homes around the time of the full moon to discuss their latest ground-breaking ideas, pondering over such matters as the composition of air and water, the behaviour of light, the geology of the clays Josiah Wedgwood used and the electricity that fascinated Joseph Priestley. All of these subjects went under the broad heading of “natural philosophy”.

It was natural that such men should want to share their ideas, but – to some of them at least – a novel notion that women might also be interested in subjects perceived as being outside their “natural” sphere. Women, even in the middle and upper classes, did not usually receive such a broad education as men; what they did learn, in general, was designed to fit them for the roles of wife and mother. Some women accepted this without question, or resignedly as their lot. Some found it frustrating and limiting, and said so. Some overcame it.

Meanwhile for the mass of working-class women, life was not about philosophy. Like their better-off counterparts, they too were limited by lack of education, but for them ignorance was one more layer of hardship in the battle against poverty. As working wives, doing outwork at home, working alongside their menfolk on the farms in the old rural pattern, or on semi-skilled jobs in the new factories in industrial towns, their lives were hard and exploited – yet they perhaps played a more immediately influential role in the family than their sisters from higher up the social scale, many of whom were denied the chance to make any meaningful contribution.

The other side of the Coin: Women and the Lunar Men

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump(Exhibited 1768). Oil on Canvas. This painting is open to many interpretations. At one level it shows that women as well as men could share in the communication of scientific knowledge or “natural philosophy”. Several of the Lunar men, for example Erasmus Darwin, James Keir and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, provided their daughters with an education that included subjects such as mechanics and chemistry as well as more “acceptable” subjects such as botany.

The following exhibition looks at a few women with some link to some of the men who were members of the Lunar Society: Matthew Boulton, Thomas Day, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, James Keir, William Withering and Joseph Priestley. Some of these women were daughters, such as Ann Boulton, Amelia Keir and Maria Edgeworth and experienced the education provided by their fathers. Maria Edgeworth achieved fame independently as a writer. Two orphan children, Sabrina and Lucretia were objects of an experimental upbringing pursued by Thomas Day.

Other women were independent of the Lunar men and related to them differently, such as Mrs Montagu, Boulton’s banker. Two others, Mary Knowles and Lady Catherine Wright, corresponded with William Withering on matters relating to the status of women or scientific matters. Mary and Martha Russell, whose father was a close friend of Joseph Priestley, have left written material and of their flight from Birmingham to France and America after the Priestley Riots of 1791.

There are other examples and the bibliography gives some suggestions for further reading. Few portraits exist of women in 18th century England and images are unknown for many of those who are described in this article. Several of the illustrations are of Lunar men – the fathers or correspondents of the women who form the subject of this piece.