Image:  The New Meeting House, Moor Street and New Meeting Street, Birmingham, where Joseph Priestley preached. The building is now St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church.

Image from: Photograph by Roy Billingham

What final judgement should we pass on Dr Joseph Priestley? He has been depicted as a stern man, a man who took the view that it was preferable that the innocent should suffer than the guilty escape. It is true that he was an uncompromising believer in social discipline and opposed to the systematic provision of poor law relief. Yet sterness is not the description I would choose in order to characterise the man. Austere, perhaps, but not stern. His greatest talents, it seems to me, lay in the field of communication, teaching and pastoral care. He never tired in the role of propagator of knowledge – accessible knowledge that could be internalised by all and sundry of whatever social station. Nothing grieved him more than to see the conservative reaction in 1790s England clamping down on even the most anodyne outlets for knowledge. In a letter written just a few months before his exodus, he contrasted the progress being made by the French in setting up a national system of education with the situation in England where even Sunday schools “begin to be reprobated as making the people too knowing.”11

In matters to do with legislation and institutional reform, there is a pleasing lack of cant about the man. Even though he believed Roman Catholics to be profoundly misguided, they too, he insisted, should enjoy the fruits of emancipation. Jews likewise. But he could be reckless, even irresponsible, in his own political cause. Priestley’s protestations that he was uninvolved in the preparations for the notorious dinner of 14 July 1791 in Birmingham scarcely ring true. And much later, while in Pennsylvania, his prowess as a controversialist led him astray once again. Despite insisting that he was a stranger in a foreign land, he allowed himself to be drawn into party politics. This episode, too, nearly ended in expulsion.

In matters scientific and more especially chemical, Priestley never disguised the fact that he lacked formal training. In answer to the suggestion that he should take up a lectureship in Philadelphia, he admitted to Revd Lindsey that “I never gave much attention to the common routine of it [chemistry] and know little of the common practices.” 12 Yet the accusation that he was a dabbler is misplaced because nearly all of the natural philosophers of his generation were eclectic experimenters. As for the casual disregard of routine, it may actually help us to understand how he was able to make fundamental discoveries.

If anyone was an exception to the rule in terms of methodology, it appears to have been Lavoisier, not Priestley. By making explicit their theoretical assumptions, the French academicians were signalling that the Baconian tradition of observation and experiment was no longer sufficient on its own. Knowledge – chemical knowledge – was accumulating rapidly in the second half of the eighteenth century and it needed new techniques if it was to be properly ordered. Priestley was dubious, if only for the reason that the new theoretically-informed and quantitatively-driven chemistry was actually harder for lay people to grasp, particularly when it was expressed in a kind of algebraic jargon.

In the end, though, the scientific world would agree with Lavoisier, and Dr Joseph Priestley, the talented practitioner and teacher, was shunted into one of History’s sidings. This is where he remains. But in the city of Birmingham, at least, we are making amends for the treatment meted out to him by our forebears.

11 Ibid., ii, pp. 207-8.

12 Ibid., ii, p. 306.

Priestley and America

Image: Joseph Priestley House, Northumberland, Pennsylvania, from the south-east showing Priestley’s laboratory.

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

Little persuading was needed to convince him that America offered the better prospect, however. First his sons went out in order to reconnoitre the landscape both physically and figuratively. It had been suggested that intending English refugees should found a model community, either in Ohio or on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. “Old Priestley” as he was now known, only set sail with his wife from the Thames on 7 April 1794. The government’s law officers did not prevent them from leaving, but few lamented their departure either. For safety their vessel, the Hope, joined a convoy of merchantmen in the Channel and, after a lengthy crossing, reached the shores of America early in June.

Priestley found it difficult to write whilst at sea. Instead he took the opportunity to re-read the Greek Testament and the Hebrew Bible as far as the first Book of Samuel. There were only eight or nine other cabin passengers, but the steerage was packed with men and their families going into exile. During the voyage he provided religious services for all and sundry, while noting that there was more religion in steerage than in the cabin quarters. However, the majority of the below- deck passengers were Calvinists. Re-united with his sons, Priestley spent the last ten years of his life in America. He would die there, along with his youngest son and his wife Mary. Sarah, his married daughter who was better known as Sally, had not made the journey and would predecease him in England.

Did America turn out to be the Promised Land? I think not. The infant United States was going through its own political turmoils at this juncture, and refugees such as Priestley who might have been involved in sedition or even conspiracy were scarcely welcomed with open arms, particularly those who, in addition, attracted suspicion on religious grounds. Moreover the young republic was not on good diplomatic terms with either Britain or France during these years, and there was a constant danger that it would be sucked into the continental European war. While his sons settled down to rustic pursuits, Priestley felt marooned. He was living in a modest settlement five days journey from Philadelphia; just getting the mail and parcels of books from Philadelphia to Northumberland was quite an undertaking. As for chemical apparatus, that was another matter altogether.

But Philadelphia, too, was cut off for long periods, particularly during the winter time. When living in Birmingham, Priestley had been accustomed to receiving communications from Paris in four days, but in April 1796 he complained to the Revd Lindsey that no news had reached Philadelphia from Europe for seventy-five days. Not surprisingly, he entertained near constant thoughts of returning to Europe, whether to England or to France. However, he was getting old and frail, and for as long as the continental war endured the Atlantic sea passage remained unsafe for passengers travelling on American vessels.

What he really wanted to do was to preach and to carry out experiments. Yet neither was really feasible in his adoptive land. There was no chapel or congregation at Northumberland, and few were keen to lend him a pulpit in Philadelphia. He was, after all, a denier of the Trinity, albeit a very learned and eminent one. In January 1798 he confided in a letter to John Hurford Stone in Paris that “I am subject to more coarse abuse, as a friend of France, than I ever was in England.” 10 As the struggle between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian democrats reached fever pitch, Priestley found himself condemned on two counts: a dangerous republican and one with unorthodox religious views to boot!

On the science front Priestley did eventually manage, by 1797, to set up a reasonably well equipped laboratory. And he would make the most of the principal natural advantage of his new situation, namely sunlight to power his magnifying glass. But he was completely out of the swim as far as experimentation was concerned. There existed no network of fellow practitioners such as the Lunar Society and if we can judge from the chance survival of letters covering this period, his scientific correspondence was desultory at best. As an adherent to the phlogiston doctrine in chemistry, he was something of a relic in any case. Few if any of his erstwhile collaborators in Europe still clung to the belief in the existence of phlogiston. His main intellectual pastime during the final years seems rather to have been religious introspection: the re-examining and re-working of the articles of his faith. Also biblical exegesis, in an attempt to match up the prophesies contained in the Books of Daniel, Kings and Revelation with the events unfolding in the world about him.

10 Ibid., ii, p. 393.

The Priestley Riots and their Aftermath

Image: Destruction of Dr Priestley’s House and laboratory, Fair Hill, Birmingham July 14, 1791

Image from: S H Jeyes, The Russells of Birmingham (1911), Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Our hero was sitting at home in Sparkbrook playing backgammon with his wife on the evening of 14 July 1791 when the news arrived that rioters from Birmingham were heading his way. The dissenter meeting houses appear to have been the main targets of the mob, including the Quaker premises in Bull Street. Priestley’s own house at Fairhill was ransacked and set alight, as were the properties of more than twenty other prominent citizens – most of them dissenters. Priestley fled to London, to be joined shortly thereafter by his family. He would never again set foot in Birmingham. Little or nothing of any consequence was saved from the conflagration at Fairhill: experimental apparatus, books, hand-written sermons, diaries, papers and letter correspondence were either consumed by the flames or looted by the crowd. An acquaintance who mingled with the rioters as they demolished his house reported that “the road for half a mile of my approach was strewn with your books, the mob were carrying others away, and there were not above twelve octavoes on the shelves when I entered the room, the floor of which was totally covered, two or three inches deep with torn leaves, chiefly manuscript.” 8

It was a personal tragedy, a tragedy for the Birmingham dissenter community, and, more generally, a tragedy for the spirit of free enquiry all rolled into one. Moreover, the Birmingham riots had far reaching repercussions across the nation for they turned the tide of opinion against would-be reformers of all persuasions – religious, political and scientific. While French chemists hastened to condole and commiserate, the Royal Society remained silent. Even some of Priestley’s friends in the Lunar Society adopted a pained stance, implying in their demeanour that he had, in part, been the author of his own misfortunes. But at least Mrs Priestley did not lose her sense of humour. In a letter to Mrs Barbauld she thanked heaven that she had burned all of her personal correspondence before it could be burned, observing furthermore than it was an ill wind that blew nobody any good. To the astonishment and irritation of the town’s medical practitioners, all their nervous patients and hypochondriacs had been cured by the drama!

The Priestley family did not decide to emigrate immediately. Joseph senior tried to rebuild his life in London with the financial help of friends and his brother-in-law John Wilkinson. He also drew on his spiritual reserves and a huge fund of biblical knowledge which allowed him to construe the workings of Providence and to find solace in even the most unpromising of situations. He even resumed his experiments, whilst admitting in a revealing letter, that social contact and context count for everything in matters relating to scientific endeavour. “There are few things I regret [more] in consequence of my removal from Birmingham”, he informed his Lunar friends, “than the loss of your society. It both encouraged and enlightened me, so that what I did there of a philosophical kind ought in justice to be attributed almost as much to you as to myself.” 9

However, he was now in the grip of powerful forces over which he had little or no control. For one thing there was a real risk that the mob might pay him a repeat visit in his new abode. As the anniversary of the riots came round his Hackney neighbours were in daily expectation of something of the sort apparently. Then there was the problem of his sons, Joseph, William and Harry, who needed to make their way in the world and yet found all doors closed to them. Finally there was the deteriorating international situation: as the example of France became ever more blood stained the winds of “liberty” began to escape the sails of the reformers and to

fill those of the conservatives instead. In February 1793 war broke out between Britain and France. This development placed men like Priestley and his son William in an awkward situation. In common with Tom Paine, author of Rights of Man (1791), they had accepted an offer of French citizenship in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the French nation. Yet in the new context of armed hostilities, such gestures could easily be misunderstood. Fearing arrest, Paine left for France in the autumn of 1792 and Priestley briefly considered removing himself from the scene in similar fashion.

8 See Rutt, Life and Correspondence, ii, p. 116 note.

9 Ibid., ii, p. 209.

Explaining the Priestley Riots

Image: Cartoon. Mr Burke’s pair of Spectacles for short sighted politicians. Edmund Burke attacked the writings and actions of radicals such as Priestley in his book, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

The national-level factor that poisoned the atmosphere of civic cooperation in the town after 1785 was undoubtedly the dissenter campaign for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. This was the legislation dating mostly from the seventeenth century which served to remind dissenters that they had once been actively persecuted minorities. The impediments to office holding by dissenters had mostly been overcome by the second half of the eighteenth century, it is true, but the presence of this legislation on the statute book continued to cause huge symbolic and some practical offence. Motions for repeal were moved in the House of Commons in 1787, in 1789 and in 1790, but they all failed (that of May 1789 by only 20 votes). Dissenters in Birmingham, in common with their co-religionaries in other big towns, were extremely active in this repeal movement, and there can be little doubt that the campaign stirred up deep-seated sectarian animosities.

What about the international factor intruding upon the surface calm of English domestic politics? The irritant here was the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, and it is important to remember that the occasion for the rioting in 1791 was the holding of a celebratory dinner on 14 July to mark the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. Who were the most conspicuous and voluble supporters of the French revolutionaries in towns like Birmingham? They were the dissenters. After 1789 such men would draw a neat, if not altogether convincing, parallel between the struggle of the French against Bourbon absolutism and their own struggle against the Hanoverian state. Dissenters were not the only group to welcome the French Revolution, of course. The spectacle of political reform across the Channel enthused many adherents of the established church also. However, the link between Dissent and French-style liberté endured, whereas the inclination of other groups to use the example of France for domestic purposes proved short-lived.

A third element can be identified in this volatile admixture of political liberty and dissenting religion: the rapidly expanding science of gaseous chemistry. Who, we must ask, were the prophets of the new chemistry? They were French men like Lavoisier, Berthollet, Guyton de Morveau and Fourcroy. And who was perceived to be their most outspoken English interlocutor? Dr Joseph Priestley. For defenders of the British Constitution such as Edmund Burke, the connection was unmistakable. In his famously lyrical diatribe against the French revolutionaries, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), he likened liberty to a “wild gas” 5 – no accidental choice of metaphor.

What of Priestley’s personal responsibility in all of this? He had a facile pen as I have already pointed out, and was scarcely a man to recoil from controversy. When attacked he always counter-attacked, often to the point of recklessness. He goaded his religious and political opponents and was goaded by them in return. So much so that engaging Dr Priestley in controversy became a recognised route for promotion with the Church of England. A year or so after the riots William Hutton, Birmingham’s first historian, remarked wryly that Priestley “had already made two bishops; and there were still several heads which wanted mitres.” 6 One of these was Spencer Madan, rector of St Philip’s who from 1787 became Priestley’s principal local adversary among the churchmen. In 1792 he was rewarded for his services with the bishopric of Bristol. Joseph Priestley’s taste for colourful and prophetic utterances, a characteristic of the Unitarians, could also get him into trouble. In a sermon preached in 1785 he used a metaphor which would prove a real hostage to fortune when he likened the efforts of Rational Dissent to gunpowder laid “grain by grain under the old building of error and superstition, which a single spark may hereafter inflame, so as to produce an instantaneous explosion.” 7 This is the origin of the nickname “Gunpowder Joe” which, in the very different political climate of the 1790s, would replace the more respectful “Proteus Priestley”.

5 E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Penguin, 1973), p. 90.

6 See Rutt, Life and Correspondence, ii, p.188.

7J. Money, Experience and Identity: Birmingham and the West Midlands, 1760-1800 (Manchester, 1977), p. 219.

Priestley and Birmingham

Image: The New Meeting House, which Priestley served as minister between 1780 and 1791

Image from: William Hutton, An History of Birmingham, 1781 edition).  Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Like all new centres of population at this time, Birmingham was a notably free and easy place in which to get work and make, or lose, money. There was no corporation or town council, no guilds and no entrenched elite. The religious affiliations of the bulk of the population were certainly Anglican, but there also existed a dissenter minority which happened to include many of the town’s richer inhabitants. To be precise, mid-century Birmingham boasted two long-established presbyterian or Calvinist communities, a small Quaker community and a more recently established congregation of Baptists. On the whole, and by the standards of other eighteenth-century provincial towns, this large concentration of labouring people rubbed along fairly well. Unrest triggered by soaring food prices occurred from time to time; there had been serious civil disturbances in 1715, and there would be more in 1791 and in 1839. Between times, however, rich and poor and dissenters and churchmen co-existed reasonably amicably. This, then, was the situation when Dr Joseph Priestley arrived and took over the New Meeting – the more liberal of the two presbyterian congregations – in October 1780.

If relations between the various communities making up the town were not habitually conflictual, whether in 1780 or even 1785, it becomes something of a challenge to explain how the atmosphere which gave rise to the riots of 1791 came into being. The answer has to be sought first and foremost at the national, even the international level. Nevertheless, Priestley himself cannot escape a share of the responsibility for what happened in 1791. If Joseph Priestley had not moved to Birmingham in 1780, is it likely that the riots have occurred notwithstanding? I think not.

Priestley and Birmingham

Image: Westley’s East Prospect of Birmingham, published about 1730

Image from: R K Dent, Old and New Birmingham (Birmingham, Houghton and Hammond, 1880)

Birmingham in the eighteenth century was an extraordinarily dynamic and inventive place. Little more than a large industrial village at the start of the century, it was expanding at a faster rate than any other centre of population in England with the possible exception of Sheffield. By the end of the third quarter of the century it had become the third largest town in England and Wales (after London and Bristol). By the century’s end it boasted nearly 74,000 inhabitants, although the population peak may have occurred a decade earlier. It was a manufacturing town, of course; indeed ‘the first manufacturing town in the world’ according to the travel writer Arthur Young 4. Utilitarian hardware was its stock-in-trade, but a switch to ornamental metal goods was under way – buttons, buckles, watch chains, snuff boxes, small brass objects and so forth – much of which was produced for export markets.

4 See E. Hopkins, The Rise of the Manufacturing Town: Birmingham and the Industrial Revolution (Guildford, 1998), p. xiii

Priestley and Nonconformist Leaders

Image: Reverend Theophilus Lindsay the founder of Unitarianism

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

During these years Priestley also made durable friendships in the world of non-conformity, and its is from the surviving correspondence with men like Dr Richard Price and the Revd Theophilus Lindsey (founding father of Unitarianism) that we really get the measure of our man. Above all, we get a sense of the centrality of his religious beliefs and of his unending quest to uncover the authentic voice of scriptural authority by stripping away all man-made doctrinal accretions.

His growing self-confidence and vigour as both a religious and a political controversialist was probably what brought the Shelburne phase of his career to an end. In 1780 the earl and his companion-librarian parted company, an event which launched Joseph Priestley into the second and more sombre – one might almost say more destructive – phase of his life. That year he arrived in Birmingham and took up the post of minister to the New Meeting, one of the town’s presbyterian congregations.

Priestley and Lavoisier

Image: Antoine Lavoisier, the French chemist, whom Priestley met in 1774

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

Among the numerous academicians whom Priestley met in Paris in 1774 was Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) whose work would place chemistry on entirely new theoretical foundations by the end of the century. Sadly, most of the Priestley-Lavoisier correspondence was lost during the Birmingham riots of 1791. I think that only one letter survives; but we do know that their meeting in the autumn of 1774 had momentous consequences for Priestley gave Lavoisier a verbal account of how he had recently stumbled upon a new gas which he had labelled “dephlogisticated air” since it supported combustion so much better than ordinary air. With his vastly expensive, high-precision apparatus Lavoisier quickly replicated Priestley’s experiments and in due course re-labelled the newly isolated gas “oxygène”.

Priestley’s Early Career

Image: The Earl of Shelburne, Priestley’s patron from 1772 to 1780

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

After Daventry, Joseph Priestley held several posts in quick succession. Between 1755 and 1758 he ministered to a small presbyterian congregation in Needham Market, Suffolk; then he moved on to a post at Nantwich in Cheshire. In 1761 he was appointed tutor in languages and literature at the recently established Warrington Academy, and it was here that he first discovered his talent as a teacher and a populariser. The post also gave him more time and the financial wherewithal to indulge his love of natural philosophy, as experimental science was then known. His first scientific publication, The History and Present State of Electricity (1767), dates from this period, and it earned him election to the Royal Society. He also got married, taking Mary, sister of the famous ironmasters John and William Wilkinson, as his bride.

The 1760s and 1770s were the most enduringly productive decades of Joseph Priestley’s life. During these years he refined and stabilised his religious beliefs; he discovered his talent as a communicator; and, of course, he started to acquire a formidable reputation as an experimental scientist. Between 1767 and 1774 he made fundamental discoveries in the field of electrostatics and gaseous chemistry, with the result that his reputation and network of correspondents spread across the whole of Europe. He also discovered that he possessed a ready pen and began to develop the pamphlet mode of discourse and polemic that would become his hallmark.

Leisure, patrons and financial resources were the keys to his success in these years. After a further stint as a pastor ministering to the large congregation of Mill Hill chapel in Leeds (1767-1773), he had entered the service of the Earl of Shelburne in the role of librarian. The position paid £250.00 per annum and came with a house and access to a fine library and laboratory. It also provided an entrée to the highest society in the land, notwithstanding Priestley’s religious opinions which many found repugnant. Shelburne also took him on the continental Grand Tour and introduced him to some of the central figures of the European Enlightenment. He met philosophes (not to mention archbishops and bishops) who did not believe in God; men who were equally taken aback to discover that he, Priestley, did. Science and religion – or maybe we should say religion as revealed by the Roman Catholic church – did not make for easy bed fellows on the continent in these decades. However for Priestley there was no tension between his religion and his experimental activities – quite the opposite in fact. If we lose sight of the point that his science served his religion, and not vice versa, we risk gravely misunderstanding the man.

Priestley’s Education

Image: The Academy at Daventry, Northamptonshire, known as Doddridge Academy which Priestley attended between 1750 and 1755

Image from: Photograph by Roy Billingham

Priestley’s aunt would have liked him to become an orthodox Calvinist minister, and with this aim in mind he was sent to Daventry Academy in 1752. Dissenters, that is to say non-Anglicans, were largely excluded from the ancient English universities at the time, and the academies acted as dissenter universities to all intents and purposes. At Daventry Priestley would build up and consolidate his education. He also received a rigorous training in the skills of free enquiry that would become his stock-in-trade for the rest of his life.

It is worth asking what species of Christian Priestley was becoming while undergoing training. Loosely speaking he was a dissenter of course: he dissented from the official doctrines of the established church, the Church of England. But this is not to say very much in an environment of religious pluralism such as that prevailing in England in the early decades of the eighteenth century. When the French philosophe Voltaire visited our shores in the 1720s, he marvelled at a country that had only one sauce but numerous religious denominations. There was “Old Dissent” and “New Dissent”: Presbyterians and Quakers; Baptists and Independents. These sects, it is important to remember, tended to disagree with one other almost as much as they disagreed with the established church. Moreover, Anglicanism was scarcely monolithic: it was riven by the Arian controversy during the early part of the century, and by Methodism during the latter part.

While at Daventry, the evidence suggests that Priestley moved in the direction of Arianism; that is to say towards a point of view that did not deny the divinity of Christ even though it questioned the Trinity insofar as Arians placed God the Father above and beyond the Son and the Holy Spirit. Later on in life Priestley would write that he was an Arian until 1767 when he took up the post of minister to Mill Hill chapel in Leeds. Much later still, in 1801, he would condemn the “folly” of Arianism in no uncertain terms. But Unitarianism – his final religious resting place – scarcely existed as a belief system in 1767, whereas by 1801 it was fully fledged. Unitarianism, or “One-goddism”, as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge summarised it somewhat dismissively, did reject the divinity of Christ and therefore completely undermined the doctrine of the Trinity. This placed Priestley beyond the Pale, not just in terms of the established church but in the eyes of many dissenter congregations as well. It meant that he could be depicted as an enemy of Christianity. It was the principal cause of the travails and setbacks he faced during his life.

2 J. Priestley to T. Lindsey, 2 October 1801 in J. T. Rutt, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Priestley (2 vols., London, 1831-32), ii, p. 469.

3 See A. D. Orange, Joseph Priestley 1733-1804 (Aylesbury, 1974), p. 23.

Priestley’s Origins

Image: Birthplace of Joseph Priestley, Fieldhead, Leeds, Yorkshire.

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

Joseph Priestley was born into a family of woollen cloth workers and dressers in the West Riding of Yorkshire, just outside Leeds, in 1733. He came from a modest but comfortable craft background. However the family was disrupted early on by the death of his mother, which resulted in Joseph and his five siblings being raised by an aunt and uncle who were markedly better off. His adoptive parents were Calvinists, albeit fairly liberal-minded Calvinists, and they would have a powerful influence on his subsequent development. His formal schooling seems to have been spasmodic and to have consisted mainly of stints at Batley grammar school and home instruction from visiting Presbyterian ministers. In this respect his early years bear a resemblance to those of James Watt, the steam engine pioneer and future Lunar associate. Watt had a rather similar Calvinist upbringing leavened with attendance at the grammar school in Greenock. Watt, also, was an experimenter and tinkerer from an early age.


Image: Print of Joseph Priestley

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

Two hundred years ago, on 6 February 1804, Joseph Priestley Doctor of Laws, minister of religion, theologian, scientist and political reformer, passed away. Thomas Cooper who was with him at the end wrote that same day to a mutual acquaintance: “Your old friend Dr Priestley died this morning without pain at 11 o’clock. He would have been 71 had he lived till the 24th of next month. He continued composed and cheerful to the end. He had been apprised of his approaching dissolution for some days.”1 Although he had been ill and in obvious decline since the previous November, Priestley had managed to keep on working in short bouts. And it was richly characteristic of the man that he should allow himself to die that morning only after having corrected some pamphlets which he had requested his son Joseph to bring to his bedside – religious pamphlets.

We mark Priestley’s passing by exploring the facets of a remarkably full and rewarding life. Yet it has to be acknowledged that he died a largely forgotten man. He died separated from his homeland in a remote and tiny settlement in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, America. He died separated from his scientific colleagues in Europe and almost completely out of touch with the experimental work in electrostatics and chemistry which he had done so much to advance in the early part of his career. He died, as he had lived, a religious outsider. And he died an unrepentant political exile whose enthusiasm for the actions of the French revolutionaries proved almost as distasteful to the Americans as it had to his fellow Englishmen.

At the religious service held to honour his memory at the Unitarian New Meeting Church in Birmingham in February 2004, the presiding minister described Priestley as a ‘man of candour’, a description that I would not dissent from – even if Priestley was capable of deceiving himself on occasions. He was a transparent man, a man who had no need of disguises, who never obfuscated, who was never slow to admit to a change of opinion. For a historian such as myself his life is relatively easy to follow, for much of it was spent in the public domain – under public scrutiny – and Priestley, as I have said, was not a man to wear masks.

It is true that the sources allowing us to reconstruct his life are now scattered; that the papers relating to the early and middle periods of his life were nearly all lost during the Birmingham riots of 1791; that Mrs Priestley had a tiresome habit of burning her own incoming correspondence; and that many of Priestley’s contemporaries either had their own correspondence destroyed in fires, or posthumously destroyed by overly solicitous relatives. Shortly before his death Priestley, too, disposed of some of his incoming correspondence, which is a shame. But much remains – not least the twenty-five volumes of his collected works. And as a social historian whose principal occupation up to now has been to coax inarticulate country dwellers to speak, I am more impressed by what we know, or can find out about Joseph Priestley, than by what remains inaccessible, or concealed from view.

My paper will provide an overview of Priestley’s career. The aim is to provide a frame of reference.

1 Birmingham Central Library, Archives of the Church of the Messiah 238, T. Cooper to J. Woodhouse, 6 February 1804.

The Life and Times of Dr Joseph Priestley

Image: Plaque to Joseph Priestley on the wall of St Michael’s Catholic Church, Birmingham, formerly Priestley’s New Meeting House.

Photograph: Roy Billingham

Text: P M Jones


This article was originally presented in a public day school, “Joseph Priestley and Birmingham” organised by the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of Birmingham on Saturday 28 February 2004. The paper by Professor Peter Jones provides an overview of Priestley’s life and times.