Women’s Education and Emancipation

Image: Maria Edgeworth, the daughter of Priestley’s friend, R L Edgeworth and an important writer on educational subjects.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The Institute ran some very popular classes for females, 49 although generally the inheritance of Priestley and the Lunar Society in Birmingham is equivocal with regard to women’s education.

It was not until the 1870s that Unitarians of Birmingham stirred to play a significant part in the establishment of the Edgbaston High School for Girls, for example. 50 On the other hand, the easy intellectual equality between men and women within the home experienced by the Lunar educationalists was echoed by their heirs as Thomas Ryland’s memoirs make plain. 51 Some women used their better education professionally as the example of some of Priestley’s descendants illustrate. His one daughter, Sarah Finch remained in the Birmingham area. Her youngest daughter Catherine ran a school for girls in Edgbaston, which Unitarian girls attended. She was reputed to be an “advanced teacher”, writing out her own books for her pupils and using excellent methods of teaching particularly in geography. Her own great interests were in astronomy, which she taught through cards, pounding holes for the stars, and conchology from which she left a collection to the museum for elementary schools. 52

Other Unitarians sent their daughters to Miss Byerley’s school in Warwickshire, an outstanding school run by the granddaughters of Josiah Wedgwood. 53 The limitations on what they could do with such an advanced education in the nineteenth century were very real although they often made more of their lives than subsequent historians have cared to show. Although there were some female pupils at Hill-Top, the thrust of the system was male-orientated and eulogised by its admirers as such. The idea for the school was Mrs Hill’s, however, and all her eight children, including the two daughters were educated similarly. One died quite young but the other, Caroline, had the same hatred of tyranny and injustice and belief in civil and religious freedom as her brothers. 54 Rowland and Matthew had asserted in Public Education that their educational principles could be applied to girls too as did Frederic Hill. 55 The Hill family’s home was a centre of eager, cooperative, intellectual and liberal vitality in itself and Rowland Hill remembered warmly the part his capable mother played in this.

In these circles, women and men shared equally ideas, commitment and enthusiasm. Frederic Hill’s wife, Martha Cowper, for example, wrote and illustrated educational books and corresponded with Maria Edgeworth before she met Frederic. In 1854 both they and Matthew Davenport Hill supported Barbara Leigh Smith and Bessie Parkes, great-granddaughter of Joseph Priestley, in a move for women’s rights. 56 This was the beginning of the Women’s Movement, which gradually did so much to alter perceptions of and opportunities for women.


It would be foolish to attempt to trace Priestley’s influence or that of the Lunar Society too far into the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, in education, in science and technology, in widening the opportunities of both men and women below the upper classes, it can be seen that both had a deep and significant effect on Birmingham.


49 Ryland, Reminiscences, 135-43, 147; Birmingham and Midland Institute Reports (Birmingham 1857-61), 1856, pp. 3-5,7; 1859, pp. 4,7; 1860, p. 9.

50 Janet Whitcut, Edgbaston High School, (Birmingham,1976), 1-67.

51 Ryland, Reminiscences, passim.

52 Ronald Martineau Dixon, “Priestley’s Daughter and her Descendants”, TUHS (1931-4), V. pp.43-66, 288-93, 411-16; Norah Byng Kenrick (ed.), Chronicles of a Nonconformist Family. The Kenricks of Wynne Hall, Exeter and Birmingham (Birmingham, 1932), 145.

53 Ibid., 161-5, 217; Phyllis D. Hicks, A Quest of Ladies. The Story of a Warwickshire School (Birmingham, 1949), passim; DNB, ‘John Kenrick’, XXXI, 14-16.

54 Hey, Rowland Hill, 43 & passim; R. Hill, Rowland Hill, 30, 47, 152-5, 193-5; Ryland Reminiscences, 24, 71, 79, 85, 101-2, 129, 131, 133, 139

55 R. & M.D. Hill, Public Education, p.vii; F. Hill, National Education I, pp. 204 – 14.

56 R. and F.D. Hill, Recorder of Birmingham , 114-5; C. Hill, Frederic Hill, 77, 92-9, 188-93, 233, 305-9; R. Hill, Rowland Hill, 19-30, 47, 82, 142, 184-98; Dixon, ‘Priestley’s Daughter’, 53-4.

Liberalism and an Educative Society

Image: Tablet dedicated to Joseph Priestley in the Church of the Messiah Broad Street, Birmingham. The dedication draws attention to Priestley’s advocacy of liberalism and education. The tablet is now in the Unitarian Church, Ladywood, Birmingham.

Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History.

A further illustration of their Priestleyan inheritance was given in the way the Hills and their ex-pupils were engaged in a whole plethora of social and political reform including the 1832 Reform Act, the Anti-Corn Law League and anti-slavery agitation. The Hill brothers themselves were prominent in Post Office and prison reform. It was not surprising they were reformers. Their older relatives had been supporters of the French Revolution along with Priestley in the 1790s and some had suffered with him. Their education, after all, was in citizenship. They all knew each other and were intermarried. Many were Unitarians. 45


Such inter-connections helped these families to fight for educational and other reforms together, although it proved difficult to establish either dissenting rights in public education or a liberal, modern scheme of education for the commercial middle-classes. 46Greater success was achieved in adult education in Birmingham although this did take time. Difficulties of financing institutions dependent on middle-class private patronage and the fees of low paid workers were exacerbated in Birmingham as elsewhere, by the patronising attitudes and selfish economic dictates of supposedly liberal and radical educational benefactors who alienated the very people they most wanted to attend. Even otherwise humanitarian reformers such as Matthew Davenport Hill could be guilty of this, but he did support technical education, only as long as the working-class was not limited to industrial training or made into tractable tools for the creation of wealth. He was influential in the excellent and enduring Birmingham and Midland Institute, as were many other members of the liberal Birmingham families mentioned here. 47 In his presidential address of 1867, Matthew Hill upheld the principle “Knowledge is Power” for all, and praised the great men of Birmingham such as Priestley, Boulton and Watt. His brother Frederic Hill worked hard to promote state education, a cause for which Birmingham became famous. 48

45 Eg see Ryland, Reminiscences, 25-6, 69-70, 102-6 & passim.

46 Ibid., 79-80; Herbart New, Centenary of the Church of the Messiah (formerly New Street) Sunday Schools (Birmingham, 1888), 14-20; Monthly Repository (1831), New Series 5, pp. 68-72 (article sent in by Rev John Kentish, minister at the New Meeting); Matthews, Sketch, pp. 29-33; Hey, Rowland Hill, 103-9, passim; Brian Simon, Two Nations, 116

47 R.& F.D. Hill, Recorder of Birmingham,   163, 170-1, 254-5; Conrad Gill, A History of Birmingham 2 vols. (Oxford, 1952), I, p. 394-5; Arthur Godloe , “The Birmingham Midland Institute” in J.H. Muirhead (ed.), Birmingham Institutions (Birmingham, 1911), 317-62.

48 Matthew Davenport Hill, Address delivered at the Birmingham and Midland Institute (1867), pp. 5-9, 17-25; Frederic Hill, National Education 2 vols. (1836).

A “Modern” Education

Image: Print of Hazelwood School.
Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Unlike the Edgeworths, the Hills believed that older children, especially boys, could be taught better and more efficiently in large schools. They extolled the skills of good, teaching which stimulated “clear, vivid and accurate conceptions” through the association of ideas through drama, costume, models, maps, illustrations, diagrams etc. and gave learners the encouragement of repeated success.35
These principles, so reminiscent of Priestley and the Edgeworths,36 were illustrated in numerous ways. The pupils were setted for subjects according to ability and taught as much as possible through the senses. Drama was used extensively throughout the curriculum. Modern languages were learnt orally first; mathematics and science were learnt through practical experiments and mental arithmetic practised to a fantastic level. An example of the boys’ practical ingenuity was given in 1819 when they made a complete survey of Birmingham, making extensive use of trigonometry, arithmetic and mensuration whilst doing so and devising practical methods to sustain accuracy. They even invented a new mode of using a theodolite in doing this. This was certainly applied knowledge and understanding on a “Lunatick” scale.37
The sheer delight, which the Hill brothers had in science and technology, was also demonstrated in the curriculum although these subjects did not dominate it. The Hills were neither so narrow not so unaware of the likely wishes of their patrons to have that. But they did give status, thought and an eager welcome to these subjects only seen in that period, in a few schools run by like-minded teachers. Their commitment was shown in 1829 when they appointed Edward Brayley, a reputed science lecturer whose excitement, joy and enthusiasm in the new inventions and science of the day was evident. In 1831 his The Utility of the Knowledge of Nature considered: … described his teaching at the Hills’ schools in detail. Experiments were plentiful in the purpose-built laboratory at Hazelwood, which, like the gymnasium, was an unusual provision at that time.38 39
Furthermore, the whole system was designed to produce order, self-discipline, initiative and self-activity, those qualities vital to an energetic, entrepreneurial, successful commercial middle-class. Corporal punishment was considered demeaning to self-respect and gradually dropped altogether. Instead, an elaborate banking system based on receiving or giving counters or marks as a reward or punishment taught boys the value of work, effort and money all together.40 The teaching and, indeed, the entire system, encouraged a large amount of pupil participation.
Such principles made Hazelwood a regular showplace for distinguished visitors who longed for the reform of middle-class schooling,41 yet the middle-class generally was largely unappreciative of the schoolboy republic and suspected the owners’ political liberalism and undogmatic religion. Although Arthur Hill headed Bruce Castle, a less radical offshoot of Hazelwood in London, from 1833 for thirty-four years, Hazelwood closed in 1833 and therefore could hardly become the basis of a national system, as its founder had so deeply desired. Even some ex-students thought the boys were pushed into being “premature men” who priggishly assumed they “could amend everything from education to driving a horse”.42 Nor did their hard won talents automatically earn them the status of an educated gentleman amongst the more traditionally educated as even Rowland Hill found to his acute disappointment.43 

Nevertheless, the school was responsible for educating many of Birmingham’s nineteenth century elite, “gentlemen” in Birmingham at least. The Hills themselves, united in all they did, were extraordinarily prolific in invention and reform of all kinds including Rowland, inventor of the penny postage stamp and Edwin, inventor of amazing machines at both the Post Office and at home. Matthew Davenport Hill became a barrister and Recorder of Birmingham. Local pupils included an impressive array of inventors, scientists, liberal politicians and local leaders including a number of the twenty-three Unitarian mayors of Birmingham between 1841 and 1893. Just one example was Follet Osler who constructed a model of the Hazelwood heating system whilst still at the school where he also helped print the Hazelwood Magazine. His glassworks in Icknield Street was celebrated nationally for pioneering sheets of glass up to 20 feet high. His Crystal Fountain at the Great Exhibition of 1851 was considered to be one of the scientific achievements of the day. He invented many useful machines and ingenious clocks including the town clock, “Big Brum”. His secret donations included £10,000 to the fledgling University of Birmingham.44

35 M.D. & R. Hill, Public Education, passim.
36 Maria & R. L. Edgeworth, Practical Education; Watts, “Joseph Priestley” , 343-53; “Joseph Priestley and Education”, 83-100.
37 M.D. & R. Hill, Public Education, passim; R. & G.B. Hill , Rowland Hill, pp. 91- 9.
38 Brayley, Knowledge of Nature, passim.
39 Hazelwood Magazine I, No. I, pp. 3-5; No. 13, pp.1, 5.
40 M.D. & R. Hill, Public Education, passim.
41 Ibid., passim; Jeremy Bentham, Chrestomathia (1816), passim; Westminster Review(1824), 1, pp.75-9.
42 P. W. J. Bartrip, “A Thoroughly Good School”, British Journal of Educational Studies, (1980) XXVIII, 49-59; William Henry Ryland (ed.), Reminiscences of Thomas Henry Ryland (Birmingham, 1904), pp. 24-8, 77-8.
43 R. & G. B. Hill, Rowland Hill, 66.
44 Ibid., I, pp. 184-98, 207-14 & passim; Colin C. Hey, Rowland Hill: Genius and Benefactor 1795-1879, (1989) 25-43, 175-6, passim.

From Priestley to the Hills

Image: Sir Rowland Hill, best-known as the inventor of the Penny Post was a son of Thomas Wright Hill and a major educational reformer.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Thomas Wright Hill was a true heir of Priestley, being converted to Unitarianism from strict Calvinism when young and becoming a member of Priestley’s congregation in Birmingham. Ardent, inventive, guileless and unconventional, his friends said of him that he had every sense except common sense. Both he and his future wife, Sarah Lea, showed courage in defence of Priestley following the 1791 Birmingham Riots. Thomas was fascinated by science to the point of eccentricity. It was his wife’s sagacity that kept the family afloat and it was her persuasion that led to Thomas taking over Thomas Clark’s school and opening Hill-Top, a secondary school for boys, in 1803 because she wanted her growing family to receive a better education than they could afford otherwise.30

The Hill children of five brothers and two sisters received constant, eager discussion and debate at home, through self-education and through the hard discipline of teaching. From the age of thirteen each of the sons became a pupil-teacher at Hill-Top. Edwin, Rowland and Arthur successively worked part-time in the Birmingham Assay Office as well, gaining first-hand experience of metal-working and engineering whilst engaging in developments in education. Many in the fierce educational debates of today might welcome this mixture of practical, vocational and intellectual education. The Hill youths, indeed, appeared to have turned from scientific experiment to practical engineering to intellectual discovery with an alacrity and intensity reminiscent of the old Lunar Society but almost frightening in ones so young. Determined on self and mutual improvement, it was Matthew and Rowland who rectified their lovable father’s want of method and it was Rowland who chiefly laid the principles of their new school of 1819, Hazelwood.31
Hazelwood was to become a brilliant showplace of almost revolutionary ideas in education for the time. The Hill family always acknowledged their debts to others, however, and of these the principal were Priestley and Maria Edgeworth. Harry Armytage termed the amazing school system of the Hill family as an “educational refraction of Priestley’s ideas”32. The “Great Maria” had become one of the most well-known novelists of the day especially for her tales for children in which she combined moral and practical education in fictional form. The Hills admired her deeply. Matthew attributed his egalitarian views on women partly to reading her Modern Griselda and he and Rowland gratefully acknowledged their debt to her ideas and principles on education in their own treatise of 1822, which became known as Public Education. Rowland visited her in Ireland and remembered with pride how in his youthful poverty he saved up to buy her Parent’s Assistant, a purchase later emulated by his brother Frederic and sister Caroline.33

Maria Edgeworth and the Hills developed those principles of education so eagerly debated in the Lunar Society. The Hazelwood experiment was unique, however. Run by the astonishingly talented Hill family, its aim was useful, pupil-centred education which would give its scholars sufficient knowledge, skills and understanding to allow them to continue self-education through a life “most useful to society and most happy to himself”.34

30 Rowland & George Birkbeck Hill, The Life of Sir Rowland Hill (1880), 7-16; Rosamund & Florence Davenport Hill, The Recorder of Birmingham. A Memoir of Matthew Davenport Hill (1878), 1-6; Constance Hill (ed.), Frederic Hill. An Autobiography of Fifty Years in Times of Reform (1894), 7-8, 17-23.
31 R. & G.B. Hill, Rowland Hill, 19-34, 52ff., 142; R. & F. D. Hill, Recorder, 7-13.
32 W. H. G. Armytage, “The Lunar Society and its Contribution to Education”, University of Birmingham Historical Journal, (1967-8) V, 67.
33 M. D. Hill & Rowland Hill, Plans for the Government and Liberal Instruction of Boys in Large Numbers Drawn from Experience [Public Education] (1822), 121-2, viii, 105, 128, 192, 199, 204 ftn; R. & G. B. Hill, Rowland Hill, 49-50, 160-8; C. Hill, Frederic Hill, 26-7.
34 Elie Halevy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (1972) Faber, pp.153-4, 249-478, 433, 491

Birmingham: Priestley’s Educational Inheritance

Image: The Old and New Meeting Houses, the Unitarian chapels in Birmingham.

Image from: William Hutton, An History of Birmingham (Birmingham, 1809). Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

It was from the Unitarians (rational dissenters who rejected both the trinity and original sin), who met in Priestley’s chapel, the New Meeting and its sister the Old Meeting, that many of those in Birmingham influenced by his teaching, came.
A member of the Brotherly Society, a joint society of the teachers from the boys’ Sunday schools of the two Meetings, was William Matthews who had become a Unitarian after hearing Priestley speak at the Society and, to his own astonishment, finding him to be “placid, modest and courteous, pouring out, with the simplicity of a child, the great stores of his most capacious mind to a considerable number of young persons of both sexes, whom … he encouraged to ask him questions … if he advanced anything which wanted explanation, or struck them in a light different from his own.”25 The largely working class Brotherly Society, established in 1796 to train teachers from among the boy pupils, ran schools which attracted many pupils because of their emphasis on a broad secular education – an emphasis as unusual at the time as its democratic organisation. This society itself had grown out of an older one, established whilst Priestley was still minister, which gave both a more extensive education to youths who had left the Sunday school and lectures on science and mechanics to factory workers. The members also ran a debating society and constructed scientific apparatus themselves to investigate the principles of mechanics, hydrostatics, electricity, gases and astronomy. In 1794 and 1795, a member, David Jones, who later became a barrister, delivered “some admirable courses of lectures” on Hartley’s theory of the mind, attended by large numbers of both sexes from different denominations.
A member of this Society, Thomas Clark, gave scientific lectures in his own home to artisans (the more skilled manual workers), several of whom worked at the Eagle foundry and so they were nicknamed the “cast-iron philosophers”. One of these, Josiah Pemberton was an early gas-light inventor. Clark himself had made his own fortune through a simple invention of winding balls of cotton he made to further his wife’s fancy goods business. An attender at Priestley’s Sunday classes, he later ran a school himself. Another philanthropist who gave free lectures in his own house to artisans was the Unitarian Thomas Carpenter. He and his brother Samuel founded the valuable Artisans Library to which artisans could belong for a small subscription, although this would be sufficiently large for a workman’s wage to ensure that only the better-off were likely to join. The participants recalled such ventures with great pride. Apparently, they were all for men and undoubtedly the most spectacular Unitarian educational initiatives were. Women, however, were allowed into meetings as Matthew’s tribute to Priestley quoted above indicates.26
Middle-class benefactors included Thomas Ryland whose family intermarried with Clark’s. The religious, social and political interests of each family were intermingled from Priestley’s time onwards.27 Other ventures such as the “Philosophical Institution” founded in 1800-1, where men like Thomas Wright Hill lectured on science, led Matthews in 1827 to laud the enlightened spirit of Birmingham men of business and the resulting orderly population: “Birmingham may probably be adduced as one of the most striking instances and strongest proofs of the civilizing and moral effects of education, that characterize modern times.”28
Such ventures, then and now, have been criticised for their paternalistic attitudes and certainly there was a gulf between the seemingly egalitarian activities of the Brotherly Society and the increasingly wealthy and professional members of the Old and New Meetings such as the Kenricks, Rylands and Oslers. The Brotherly society itself is most remembered for helping to educate men like Thomas Wright Hill who became its president and James Luckcock, later prominent in progressive Unitarian Sunday school education and a prosperous manufacturer. On the other hand, what must be remembered is that those middle-class businessmen themselves who engaged in these educational ventures were struggling both against the prejudices of the landed upper and middle classes who regarded them not as gentlemen but uneducated philistines and against those of their own kind who saw education beyond fourteen as incompatible with a “sufficient application to business”. In contrast men people like Thomas Wright Hill, who lectured on science and mathematics, argued that further education was far more useful than the pursuits with which young men in business usually occupied themselves.29

25 William Matthews, A Sketch of the Principal Means which have been employed to ameliorate the Intellectual and Moral Condition of the Working-Classes in Birmingham(1830), 6-14.
26 Ibid., 14-18, 22-5
27 William Henry Ryland (ed.), Reminiscences of Thomas Henry Ryland (Birmingham, 1904), pp. 64-70.
28 Matthews, Birmingham, 23-4.
29 Ibid., 5-15; Emily Bushrod, The History of Unitarianism in Birmingham from the middle of the eighteenth century to 1893, Unpublished MA, University of Birmingham, 1954, 206-17, passim; T.W. Hill, Course of Evening’s Instructions for a Limited Number of Persons (Birmingham, 1804).

The Lunar Society and Education

Image: Lunar Society member, Samuel Galton junior, who educated his daughter, Mary, according to Priestley’s ideas.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The concept was essentially male, but the Lunaticks extended such ideals to women too – perhaps as revolutionary a thought as any others they had. Richard Edgeworth’s second wife, Honora Sneyd, for example, was the inspiration for some of his educational methods. His eldest daughter Maria worked with him and became a famous author and educationalist in her own right. Both Richard and Maria wanted women to develop fully their powers of reasoning and judgement and thus included many illustrations of girls engaged in experiments and reasoning in their trilogy, Practical Education22. Erasmus Darwin, although more sentimental, agreed with such aims in his book on female education written for his own two illegitimate daughters who were establishing a school in spacious surroundings in Ashbourne in 1792. His attention to a healthy, stimulating educational diet for girls extended to taking older ones to see the modern wonders of the English world – the cotton, pottery, iron and other industries of the midlands and the north.23
Another Lunar member, the Quaker manufacturer and chemist, Samuel Galton junior, with his wife educated their daughter Mary in science, classics, languages, literature, history and modern politics, wood-carving, book-binding and model and chart making. Her later turn to evangelical religion led her to criticise this early education for its licence, its gender egalitarianism and its corrupting influences, particularly the over-reliance on human reason of her former friends the Unitarian Priestleys.24 Such a view was more typical of most in the early nineteenth century that those of the Lunar Society. The rational, useful, scientific, liberal, (middle-class) education they desired was revolutionary for its time and was hugely contested at a time of revolutionary and then national wars with France. This can be seen in the Birmingham experience in the nineteenth century.

22 Maria & R. L. Edgeworth, Practical Education 3 vols. (1801), I, pp. 179, 258-60, 272-3, 258; III, pp. 1-26, 48, 53-5, 229, 272, 279-80, 300, 311, 325-57.
23 Erasmus Darwin, A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools(Derby, 1797), passim.
24 Christina C. Hankin (ed.), The Life of Mary Anne Schimmelpennick (1858), passim.

The Lunar Society and Education

Image: Dr Erasmus Darwin, doctor, scientist and poet and friend of Priestley in the Lunar Society. His Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schoolsreflected contemporary interest in the education of middle-class girls.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

In opposition to traditional educationalists, Lunaticks positively rejoiced in science and technology, wanting to harness nature for the use of humanity. They were humane in intent, for example, they were anti-slavery despite the fact that the profits of Birmingham business, which was so important to Boulton especially, were bound up with the slave-trade. The coins and medals struck at Soho by Boulton and Wedgwood’s cameos20 for the anti-slave trade campaign demonstrated the liberal, reforming impulse so richly exemplified by Priestley.
The revolutionary nature of this must be emphasised. Science, however interesting as entertainment, was usually dismissed in traditional education as merely a hobby for amateurs, a study for classes below the rank of ‘gentlemen’. But the Lunaticks and their friends were those who were turning Britain into the first modern industrial nation and were positive that the leaders of the future would come from those who had mastered the sources of knowledge which had changed the world. This, together with literary excellence and moral development formed a “truly liberal education”21 and, in turn, would forge a new type of gentleman – enterprising, open to new ideas, tolerant, humane, liberal and civic-minded in contrast to what they saw as privileged, duelling, pleasure loving selfish aristocrats. This was a middle-class emphasis but the type of education could hopefully be translated to all.

20 See examples at Soho House.
21 Priestley, “Miscellaneous Observations”, 185-95, 206-18, passim; “History”, 5,22,311-17,403-15,471-5; “Electricity”, 345; “Experimental philosophy”, 389; “Proper objects”, 420-1; Autobiography of …, (Bath, 1970; 1st ed. 1806) , 88-9.

The Lunar Society and Education

Image: Richard Lovell Edgeworth, member of the Lunar Society, inventor and writer. The educational publication, Practical Education was written with his daughter, Maria.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Dissatisfied with the limited, traditional classical education which was common fare for boys of the upper and middle classes and which looked backwards to the triumphs of past civilizations, rather than forward to the achievements of the new, members of the Lunar Society believed in a new modern and scientific education. They showed their advanced ideas through the education they gave to their own children at home or through the most progressive institutions they could find in Britain or on the continent.18The chief educationalists in the Society published educational works to diffuse their ideas. Two of them had practical experience of teaching, Priestley, as seen above, and Richard Edgeworth, who educated his nineteen children by his four successive wives at home. All the Lunatick educationalists agreed on a rational education, which enabled children and students to think for themselves, to back their ideas with evidence and to replace rote learning with a practical understanding of how things were or worked. The knowledge they so deeply desired was scientific both with regard to content and method. They wanted to understand in every way the world in which humans lived. They might retain classics for a “gentleman’s education”, but devote far less time on them, preferring instead to study ‘modern’ subjects including not only science and its application, but modern history based on sources, English literature and modern languages. They were not against the arts but fused them with science to produce a new culture. This was exemplified in Wedgwood’s pottery and Darwin’s poetry.19

18 Julia Wedgwood, The Personal Life of Josiah Wedgwood the Potter, 2 vols. (Manchester, 1915), II, 433, 547- 548, 555-6; Henrietta Litchfield (ed.), Emma Darwin. A Century of Family Letters 1792-1896, 2 vols. (1915), I, 61-2.

19 E. Darwin, The Botanic Garden, (1795) canto 1, 84-90, note XXII, 53-9 and passim.

The Lunar Society and Education

Image: Lunar Society member, Thomas Day, humanitarian poet and writer, who tried to introduce Rousseau’s educational ideas into English society. His book, Sandford and Merton, remained a popular children’s book into the nineteenth century.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Priestley is perhaps known best in Birmingham today through his involvement with the Lunar Society, in which, from 1780 to 1791, he was a leading light. This small but dynamic group of creative scientists, enterprising inventors and business men and innovative writers are best remembered for their scientific and technological advances. In the history of education, however, the educational significance of Lunar Society figures such as Joseph Priestley, Richard Edgeworth, Thomas Day and Erasmus Darwin, (and I would add Maria Edgeworth since she wrote with her father), within late eighteenth century radical and progressive education has been trumpeted since the 1960s.15 The Lunar Society itself was an educative society, in the way that its members eagerly exchanged ideas, excitedly caught up and developed each other’s suggestions and enthusiastically engaged in a range of subjects upon which they poured their increasing expertise. When Matthew Boulton proudly said, “I sell, Sir what all the world desires to have – POWER”,16 he was referring to Soho’s manufacture of Watt’s steam engines, which revolutionised industry in more than one sense of the word. He could as easily been referring to knowledge for he and his friends were rapidly increasing human knowledge and they were keenly aware of the power that that could give them. Priestley urged, “In fact it is knowledge that finally governs mankind, and power … must at length yield to it.”17 Thus to possess the type of knowledge which could command power in the world became a key objective of reformers in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Education was therefore one of the subjects some of them studied so keenly.

15 Simon, Two Nations, 17-71.
16 Uglow, Lunar Men, 257, passim.
17 J. Priestley, “The Proper Objects of Education in the present State of the World…”, (1791) Works, XV, 431, 434-5.

Priestley’s Educational Philosophy

People, Priestley insisted, were not what they were born but what their education had made them. A careful education from birth in all aspects of being – intellectual, moral and physical – was a prerequisite, therefore, for the virtuous, useful and happy man or woman. Priestley derived his ideas partly from John Locke who was admired by many dissenting educationalists and, indeed, others, but even more so from David Hartley whose Observations on Man he reissued in condensed form. He admired the clarity and coherence of Hartley’s associationist psychology, which maintained that all complex or ‘intellectual’ ideas arise from simple ones, which, in turn, were formed from external impressions made on the senses.2 Priestley eagerly proclaimed thus people developed through individual associations and circumstances3 – “children may be formed or moulded as we please”.4 Reflection, experience and extensive intellectual education were what was needed for people to attain moral, religious and intellectual progress and even perfection not innate cause or divine intervention.5

Thus it appeared that people of both sexes should receive the same, careful, wide education and that parents and teachers in particular should fully understand associationist psychology and be well-educated themselves. This education should be scientific in method and in content. Thus empirical and experimental subjects such as modern history and science were extolled, both new subjects in higher education and in schools.6 Priestley’s own teaching and writings also helped the acceptance of English and its literature as an academic subject in both schools and academies.7 With sublime optimism in the beneficial effects of the curriculum and methods he disseminated, Priestley urged teachers to illustrate and exemplify their ideas and introduce systematic methods.8 He anticipated the use of sources in history teaching and of experiment in science teaching way ahead of his time, adding that all studies should be adapted to the age and the capacity of the learner.9
Priestley, indeed, applied his science of psychology throughout learning. He saw particular kinds of knowledge as power – power to create virtuous beings and to control the forces of nature for good. To him science was that paradigm of free enquiry, which was of “peculiar concern” to his religious group, the Unitarians and fitted his perception of the needs of the rising industrial and commercial middle-class in which many dissenters, including the energetic Unitarians, were to be found.10 Excited that it was an era of dramatic change for humanity, of “new light … bursting out in favour if the civil rights of men”, Priestley was also well aware of the concerns of those who were leading the industrial revolution. With Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood (another Unitarian) and others, Priestley was an active participant in the scientific, industrial and educational concerns of the small but vital Lunar Society of Birmingham. Priestley was certain that the leaders of the future would come from those who had mastered the sources of knowledge which had changed the world:11 thus, to him, the very scientific and industrial interests which were scorned in the traditional education of Oxbridge and the public schools, were the just basis of a prosperous meritocracy.12 For him, literary and scientific excellence including modern languages accompanied by a proper moral development were necessary in a “truly liberal education” which would produce enlightened leaders of the middle-class.13 Thus through his teaching and prolific writings he urged a new liberal and useful education, throughout his life.
Priestley was a dramatic and innovative force in education. In Birmingham he had particular effect firstly on the Unitarians through his preaching at the New Meeting and teaching in the Sunday school; secondly through his part in the setting up of the library; and, thirdly on all his family and friends particularly those in the Lunar Society including the children of members who visited his house and ran freely through his laboratory and library.14

2 D. Hartley, Observations on Man, (New York, Delmar, 1976) I, 65.
3 Priestley, “Hartley’s Theory”,184.
4 J. Priestley, “The Doctrine of Philosophic Necessity Illustrated” (1782) Works, III, 521; Hartley, Observations, 82, II, 453.
5 J. Priestley, “Preface and Dedication to Heads of Lectures on a Course of Experimental Philosophy” (1794) Works, XXV 389; J. Priestley, ‘Philosophic Necessity’, 515.
6 J. Priestley, Lectures on History and General Policy (Philadelphia, 1803), Works, XXIV; “The History and Present State of Electricity, with original experiments” (1767) Works, XXV; “Experimental Philosophy”, 385.
7 J. Priestley, “A course of lectures on oratory and criticism” (1777); “The Rudiments of English Grammar” (1798) Works, XXIII, 257-482, 3-118.
8 Priestley, “Oratory”, 259; Miscellaneous Observations relating to Education (1780) Works, XXV, 219.
9 Priestley, “History”, 54-202, 463-83; A Familiar Introduction to the Study of Electricity, Johnson and Payne, 1769, 10.
10 Priestley, “Oratory”, 255.
11 R.E. Schofield, The Lunar Society of Birmingham (Oxford, 1963); Priestley, “History” 5,22,313-17, 403-15, 471-5.
12 B. Simon, The Two Nations and the Educational Structure 1780-1870 (1974), 84-7; Priestley, “Miscellaneous Observations”, 185-95, 206-18; “History”,11; “Electricity”, 345.
13 Priestley, “Experimental Philosophy”, 389; “Miscellaneous Observations”, 5-228.
14 Priestley, “A particular Attention to the Instruction of the Young … Gravel-Pit Meeting in Hackney” December 4 , 1791,  Works, iv-ix and Preface; J. Uglow, The Lunar Men(2001), 319-20, 406-7.

Joseph Priestley and his Influence on Education in Birmingham

Image: Penny featuring a bust of Joseph Priestley on one side, and on the other side an apparatus for experiments.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office (Donor reference: 690)

Text: Ruth Watts


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. Ruth Watts explores Priestley’s influence on education in Birmingham.
Joseph Priestley, celebrated as a great creative scientist but infamous in his day for his radical stance in both theology and politics, was also an progressive educationalist who influenced educational developments both nationally and in Birmingham where he lived from 1780 to 1791. Priestley promoted an environmentalist and rational philosophy of education, underpinned by his experience firstly as a schoolteacher, then as an innovative lecturer in an astonishing range of subjects at the liberal dissenting academy of Warrington, and from 1791 to 1794 a lecturer in science and history at Hackney Academy in London.1 This article will examine Priestley’s educational philosophy briefly and then see how far it was typical of Priestley’s fellow “Lunaticks” and how adherents to Priestley’s ideas translated them into action in Birmingham.

1 See especially J.Priestley, “Introductory Essays to Hartley’s Theory of the Human Mind” (1790; 1st ed. 1775) in The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley(ed.) J.T. Rutt, 25 vols. (1817-31) [hereafter termed Works] vol. III, 167-96. See also R. Watts, “Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)” , Prospects, Thinkers on Education, (1995, UNESCO) vol. XXIV, no. 3, 343-53; “Joseph Priestley and Education”, Enlightenment and Dissent, (1983) no. 2, 83-100.