Peter Takes on History
July 14, 1791
Joseph Priestly Rubs Brummies the Wrong Way
OK, high school chemistry. Joseph Priestley is the man who gets credited with having first isolated and identified the element oxygen, right? Priestley gets credit but the fact is there’s a strong case that a Swedish chemist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele might have been first ... but Priestley published first, in 1774, two years before Scheele and that’s how history makes someone famous.
But if you asked someone in 1780 what made Priestley famous, it wouldn’t be oxygen or the term Priestley used for oxygen - "dephlogisticated air." Not very catchy. He probably should have run the name by marketing first.
Anyway, to an average Englishman in 1780 Priestly was known for another innovation of his; carbonation!
But let’s say you weren’t impressed by bubbles, you might be aware of Priestley for a different reason - his writings on electricity. Priestley gathered all the contemporary thinking on electricity including the work of our own Ben Franklin and laid it out in his book The History and Present State of Electricity - a text credited years later by Faraday and Volta.
But even if you'd never had your nose tickled by tiny bubbles and still believed electricity was an invisible liquid that flowed through the ether, you might still know Joseph Priestley for the Priestley Riots.
On this day in history, July 14th, 1789 French citizens stormed the Bastille and kicked off the French Revolution.
Also, on this day in history, July 14th, 1791 Joseph Priestley announced a dinner party at the Royal Hotel in Birmingham, for people in sympathy with the goals of their French compatriots. After dinner, rioters burned the hotel to the ground. The crowd, enflamed by, well, flames and a good deal of alcohol, went on to burn twenty-seven homes, four chapels and several businesses.
See, Priestley had irked all strata of Brummies (as people from Birmingham are affectionately known), beginning with the devout.
Priestly was considered a dissenter, someone who did not adhere to the teachings of the Church of England. Priestley was actually one of the founders of the Unitarian Church. Unitarians take issue with the concepts of original sin, the Holy Trinity and the infallibility of the Bible. That put him at odds with Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants of all stripes who took issue with the Unitarian concept of religious tolerance and chose to set their meeting halls alight.
Priestley also made enemies in the upper classes with his outspoken support for French Revolutionaries who called for various civil rights and universal suffrage. That positioned Priestley as a potential adversary of George the Third and British Prime Minister William Pitt who, though they supported democracy on paper, were less supportive of any efforts that led to the separation of the ruling classes from their heads. There was just a little too much guillotining going on across the channel.
So, when the rioting started, no officials made any effort to break it up. The mob burned Priestley’s house day one and had such a good time that they went home, got a good night's sleep, invited some friends and returned to burn buildings on days two and three.
They started burning homes of Priestly’s friends and fellow congregants. Contemporary accounts showed that the rioters would first loot the homes of all alcohol, drink up, then set it ablaze. In one case the owner tried to turn away the arsonists by bribing them with alcohol. The crowd took the alcohol, acknowledged the owner’s generosity, but burned the house anyway.
It wasn’t until day three that the authorities finally read the crowd the Riot Act.
OK, how many times have you had someone threaten to read you the riot act. It was one of my mom’s go tos and we understood it by context, right? You better stop or you’re gonna get it! Well, it turns out the riot act was an actual piece of legislation. The British government, wanted a way to stop protests, so they passed a law that allowed officials to break up crowds of 12 or more by, literally, reading them the Riot Act. Once the act was read, anyone who heard the reading had to disperse within an hour, under penalty of death. That'll dampen the party spirit, huh?
Anyway, after three days the Priestley riots subsided. For years afterwards Priestley and his friends petitioned the government for reimbursement, blaming them for delaying the reading of the riot act. The government demurred and Priestley finally gave up and moved to North Umberland … Pennsylvania to live his final years.
As a result of the Priestley Riots many liberals and free thinkers decided they might be more welcome in other areas and began moving from Birmingham. The exodus created a more conservative community, a demographic that has, for the most part, remained in effect for 200 years!