The Attack on William Russell’s House at Showell Green

Image: The House of William Russell, Esq., Showell Green from The Riots at Birmingham, July 1791. Image by courtesy of James Rushton. The publication was republished by Arthur Bache Matthews, Birmingham in 1863.

Image from: Private Collection

Priestley had fled Fair Hill when first news of the riots reached him and taken refuge in the Russell family’s, as yet, safe house at Showell Green. One wonders once again to what extent Priestley may have been prepared for this contingency.

According to Miss Russell’s account28, the sounds of the mob’s destruction of Fair Hill could be clearly heard by the terrified Russell and Priestley families, who had moved from the Showell Green house, now considered to be also under threat, to that of Mr Hawkes: “What were the emotions of our mind at this moment no one can imagine, unless they had beheld our countenances and heard the broken, short sentences that formed all the conversation that passed between us: yet the extreme agitation of our minds did not prevent us from admiring the divine appearance of the excellent Dr. Priestley”.

In the early hours of the morning, the Russells and Priestleys returned to Showell Green, where the house had seemingly been spared (it was to be destroyed on the Saturday evening). No sooner had Priestley and his wife gone to bed than word came that the rioters were stirring again from their drunken slumbers on the lawns of Fair Hill and were heading this way intent on getting their hands on Priestley. The dazed Doctor and Mrs Priestley had to get dressed again and set off in a chaise through the back-lanes south of Birmingham to the safety of a friend’s house near Dudley29.

So it was that one of the greatest men ever to have lived in Birmingham made his ignominious exit, never to return. A few days later he was in London, writing his famous letter to the inhabitants of Birmingham, which appeared in Aris’s Gazette on 25 July 1791. It ends: “At all events, we return you blessings for curses; and pray that you may soon return to that industry, and those sober manners, for which the inhabitants of Birmingham were formerly distinguished”30.

28 Dent, op cit, pp. 229-30.

29 ibid, p. 238.

30 ibid, pp. 248-9.

The Attack on Baskerville House

Image: Baskerville House, Residence of John Ryland Esq., from The Riots at Birmingham, July 1791. The publication was republished by Arthur Bache Matthews, Birmingham in 1863.

Image from: Private Collection

Certain aspects of what happened during the Riots do indeed suggest a degree of reason behind the madness. Several owners of properties were warned in advance of their fate and, in the most remarkable episode, the elderly lady tenanting a “targeted” house owned by John Taylor, was helped to move all her belongings to a safe distance before destruction commenced.

On the other hand, elements of the mob were clearly motivated by more basic desires than protecting the establishment, with Priestley’s cellar given higher priority than his laboratory in the attack, and many looters joining in the fun. The same thing happened at Baskerville House on Easy Hill with tragic consequences for drunken rioters who were trapped in the building when it was set alight.

The Attack on Priestley’s House at Fair Hill

Image: The Rev Dr Priestley’s House and Laboratory, Fair Hill from The Riots at Birmingham, July 1791. The publication was republished by Arthur Bache Matthews, Birmingham in 1863.

Image from: Private Collection

According to Martineau, the magistrate’s first plan for the riots ended there, and they were as shocked as anyone to hear that the mob had moved on from the Meeting Houses and marched down the Stratford Road to destroy Priestley’s house, library and laboratory at Fair Hill (“the most truly valuable and useful apparatus of philosophical instruments that perhaps any individual in this or any other country, was ever possessed of”27). It was at this point, he claims, that, seeking to control a riot that was threatening to get out of hand and make the most of it, they drew up a “hit-list” of houses the mob could target.

27 An Authentic Account… (A), op cit (“Dr Priestley’s Letter to the Inhabitants of the Town of Birmingham”), p. 14.

The Attack on the New and Old Meeting Houses

Image:The New Meeting from The Riots at Birmingham, July 1791. The publication was republished by Arthur Bache Matthews, Birmingham in 1863.

Image from: Private Collection

The first act of violence was the stoning of the empty hotel but the mob soon moved on to more “worthy” targets in the shape of Priestley’s New Meeting House on Moor Street and the nearby Old Meeting House in Worcester Street. It seems that Brooke may have bribed the mob to move on; if so this could have been simple self-interest as he owned a house near the hotel. Martineau contends that he went further, specifically recommending that they attack the Meeting Houses, and that he did this as part of a concerted plan with Carles and Spencer.

The French Revolution Dinner 14 July 1791

Image: French Revolution Dinner. This Ticket entitles the bearer to a Bottle of Wine at the Dinner at the Hotel on the Fourteenth of July, 1791. No 49. Initialled TD.

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

Somewhere between 80 and 90 men attended the Dinner. They drank no fewer than 18 toasts [so that’s why they needed a bottle of wine each!] including “The King and Constitution”, “The Prince of Wales” and “Prosperity to the Town of Birmingham” as well as, more controversially, “The National Assembly and Patriots of France”, “The New Constitution of France” and “The Rights of Man”. They also toasted republican movements in the United States and Poland. Nevertheless, it was far short of the seditious declarations reported in the London press, in response to which the complete wording of the toasts was later published24.

There had been some barracking of the diners as they entered the Hotel in Temple Row but it seemed that the hotelier’s plan had worked when they departed peacefully. It was only after they had gone that a mob gathered outside the Hotel, accompanied by the town magistrates, Joseph Carles and Benjamin Spencer and the Under-Sheriff of Warwickshire, John Brooke. The fact that these three had been drinking with members of the mob and were now mingling with them outside the Hotel is used by Martineau25as further evidence that they were manipulating the situation to attack local radicals and particularly Priestley – however, it could also be argued that this is precisely what they should have been doing in order to try and take control of the situation (later in the Riots, William Hutton’s son, Thomas, briefly won over the mob attacking his father’s shop and got them to march with him at their head to the rescue of Bordesley Hall – although they quickly switched sides and joined the attackers when they got there26).

24 ibid, p. 22ff.

25 op cit, Part 2, p. 12f.

26 Catherine Hutton, op cit, quoted in Dent, op cit, p. 237.

The French Revolution Dinner 14 July 1791

Image: ”A Birmingham Toast, July 14th, 1791” by James Gillray.

Image from: R.K. Dent, Old and New Birmingham: A History of the Town and its People(Birmingham, Houghton and Hammond, 1880), p. 215

One of the abiding national images of the Riots is a cartoon by leading caricaturist, James Gillray, showing Priestley and other well-known radicals, toasting “the King’s head on a plate”. It represents the “London” view of the Riots which so much of the Birmingham literature is designed to counter. The cartoon refers to the event that set off the riots – a “Gallic Commemoration Dinner” in Birmingham on 14 July 1791 celebrating the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. It is of course a satire and not meant to be what actually happened – most of the people identified at the feast lived far from Birmingham and had nothing to do with Priestley except for some shared political views – but two “inaccuracies” are more significant from a local perspective. First, Priestley, shown as the proposer of the toast, did not actually attend the Dinner, as explained below; secondly, his pose, raising plate and chalice aloft, is more reminiscent of a Catholic communion than a Unitarian service, and brings to mind that on at least two occasions during the Riots, the mob is recorded as chanting “No Popery” – did they even know what they were rioting against?

Priestley had fully intended to go to the Dinner and had even done his best to get others to attend19. But things had heated up considerably following an announcement of the event published in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette: “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”20 [clearly an 18th century use of the word “temperate”!]. This was accompanied by a statement that an attendance list would be published in a subsequent issue of the newspaper. The placing of this statement by the editor of the Gazette is seen by most Birmingham historians as a deliberate attempt to scare people off and is interpreted by Martineau21 as the first in a series of “conspiratorial” actions taken by the town’s “establishment”.

To make matters worse, a truly inflammatory handbill appeared in the streets at about the same time. It calls for “every Enemy to Civil and Religious Despotism” to “give his sanction to the Majestic Common Cause by a Public Celebration of the Anniversary”. It goes on to compare the recently overturned system in France with that still running England 22. The organisers of the Dinner were so determined to distance themselves from the handbill and its effect on the population that they published a second announcement in the Gazette on 13 July “to declare their entire disapprobation of all such Hand-bills, and their ignorance of the authors” and affirm their loyalty to “the Constitution”. Despite this, there was still the threat of violence against the participants and a third announcement was prepared, cancelling the Dinner; but at this point the owner of the Hotel, possibly concerned at the loss of trade, proposed a compromise – the Dinner should go ahead but finish early, before any potential rioters had gathered23.

At some stage during all this uncertainty, Priestley had decided not to attend, perhaps believing that, without him there, the Dinner could proceed in peace. He intended to spend a quiet evening in his home at Fair Hill, Sparkbrook.

19 His invitation to William Hutton and its refusal are recorded by Catherine Hutton, op cit, quoted in Dent, op cit, p. 225.

20 Quoted in Upton, op cit, p. 53.

21 op cit, Part 2, p. 12.

22 Reproduced in An Authentic Account… (A), op cit, p. 2f.

23 ibid (“Mr Russell’s Refutation of a fallacious Account of the Toasts &c given in a London Print, called The Times, at the late Gallic Commemoration Dinner at the Hotel, Birmingham; addressed to the Editor of the Star, a London Paper”), p. 20f.

Introduction: Interpretations

The “Priestley” Riots of July 1791 are one of the best-documented episodes in Birmingham history. The initial coverage of the riots in the local and national press led to a plethora of letters to the papers and “corrective” pamphlets. The victims were, after all, what Chris Upton has termed the “chattering classes” of their day.1 Principal among these are at least three pamphlets all claiming to be “An Authentic Account” of the Riots2. But of course, prolific writer, William Hutton, a double victim of the Riots, had his say too3, as did his daughter, Catherine,4 and his friend William Russell’s daughter5. Perhaps the final word should rightly go to Priestley himself.6
The Riots are mentioned in all general histories of Birmingham, with detailed accounts in Dent7, Gill8 and Upton9, and had a whole book dedicated to them by popular historian, Vivian Bird, at the time of the bicentenary in 199110.
More analytical accounts are given by Rose11 and Martineau12 (the latter addressing the single issue of whether the Riots were “managed”) while the wider context is provided by Money13.

With all that has been written, it might be imagined that everything possible is known about the Riots. However, the story remains incomplete, due to the preponderance of accounts by people favourable to Priestley, and limited research into “the other side” as told by local establishment figures and the London Press.

One of the few exceptions is the letter contesting Priestley’s view of the Riots in one of the Authentic Accounts14. This accuses Priestley of inciting the violence against him while in no way excusing it15. After all, Priestley had famously written in January 1791, “I have long since drawn the sword and thrown away the scabbard, and am very easy about the consequences”16. However, to the modern mind, Priestley’s defence – that his weapons had been words and with words only should they have been answered17 – rings truer.

The circumstances leading up to the Riots are discussed in Rose18. The backdrop was years of growing tension between local dissenters and established churchmen connected with the campaign for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts; but the final spark was the political rift between radicals and conservatives brought about by the French Revolution of 1789.

Like others in Birmingham, Priestley was firmly on the side of both dissent and radicalism, although as always the lines were somewhat blurred – one of the leading radicals, James Keir, was in fact an Anglican.

1 Upton, Chris, A History of Birmingham (Phillimore, Chichester, 1993), p. 55.

2 A) An Authentic Account of the Late Riots in the Town of Birmingham and its Vicinity, from the Commencement of Thursday, the 14th of July 1791, to the final Suppression on the 19th of the same month. Together with the Letter of Dr. Priestley, and an Answer thereto. Also, the several Letters of Wm. Russell and James Keir, Esqrs. With an Account of the Toasts drank at the Gallic Commemorative Meeting, at the Hotel, and a Literal Copy of the Seditious Hand-Bill, which is supposed to have given rise to these Riotous Proceedings (Birmingham 1791);
B) An Authentic Account of the Dreadful Riots in Birmingham, occasioned by the Celebration of the French Revolution, on the 14th of July, 1791, when the Property of the Inhabitants was destroyed to the amount of Four Hundred Thousand Pounds (H.D. Symonds, London, 1791);
C) An Authentic Account of the Riots in Birmingham, on the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th days of July, 1791. Also, the Judge’s Charge, the Pleadings of the Counsel, and the Substance of the Evidence given on the Trials of the Rioters. And an Impartial Collection of Letters, &c…. The whole compiled, in order to preserve to posterity the Genuine Particulars … of an Event, which attracted the Attention of Europe. (Compiled by James Belcher, Birmingham, 1791 – Appendix 1792).

3 A Narrative of the Riots in Birmingham, July 14, 1791, particularly as they affected the Author, in The Life of William Hutton (first published 1816, latest edition with introduction by Carl Chinn, Brewin, Studley, 1998) – Hutton says that he intended to publish this section separately “but my family would not suffer it to see the light” (p. 73).

4 A Narrative of the Riots in Birmingham, July, 1791 (“Printed for private circulation among the descendents of those who suffered in those troublous times”, Birmingham, 1875) – note the long delay before publication, long after Catherine and all others involved were dead.

5 Extensively quoted (along with Catherine Hutton) in Dent, Robert K, Old and New Birmingham (Birmingham, 1879), pp228-256

6 Priestley, Joseph, An Appeal to the Public, on the Subject of the Riots in Birmingham. To which are added, Strictures on a Pamphlet, intitled ‘Thoughts on the Late Riot at Birmingham.’ (J. Thompson, Birmingham, 1792)

7 Dent, op cit

8 Gill, Conrad, History of Birmingham, Volume 1: Manor and Borough to 1865 (Oxford University Press, London, 1952)

9 Upton, op cit

10 The Priestley Riots, 1791, and the Lunar Society(Birmingham and Midland Institute, Birmingham, 1991)

11 Rose, RB, “The Priestley Riots of 1791”, Past & Present, Number 18 (November 1960) pp68-88 – also summarised in “Political History to 1832”, Stephens, WB (ed), A History of the County of Warwick, Volume VII: The City of Birmingham (The Victoria History of the Counties of England, Oxford University Press, London, 1964) pp. 279-281

12 Martineau, Denis, “Playing Detective: the Priestley Riots of 1791”, Birmingham Historian Number 12, pp15-18 + Number 13, pp. 11-16

13 Money, John, Experience and Identity: Birmingham and the West Midlands 1760-1800 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1977)

14 (A) as cited above

15 ibid, pp. 16-19.

16 The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley (edited by JT Rutt, Hackney, 1817-31) Volume 2, p. 9.

17 An Authentic Avccount… (A), op. cit, pp. 13-16.

18 op cit, pp. 68-72.

A Sorry End: The Priestley Riots of 1791

Image: Ticket for the French Revolution Dinner, Birmingham 14 July 1791. The Dinner began the chain of events which led to the Priestley Riots. The Ticket admits the bearer to dine at the Hotel on Thursday, July 14, 1791. No 48. Initialled T D. French Revolution Dinner.

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

Text: Peter Leather


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. Peter Leather explores the events of the Priestley Riots in Birmingham in 1791.