The Priestley Riots


In the late 18th century, while Revolution raged in France, many in Birmingham feared that religious dissent might lead to revolution against the Church of England and the British monarchy. Dissenters are those that refuse to accept the doctrines of an established church, in this case Protestants who dissented from the Church of England.

Joseph Priestley, a dissenter, was minister of the Old Meeting House. Priestly had written an inflammatory pamphlet that described 'laying gunpowder' under the 'old building of error' . This had caused alarm among supporters of the established church, who believed they were under threat. Priestley had gained notoriety for his criticism of an attack on the French Revolution by Edmund Burke (a conservative statesman and political thinker).

On 14 July 1791 Priestley and his followers met at a dinner to celebrate the second anniversary of the storming the Bastille. Their opponents took this as an opportunity for full scale riot. They attacked and burned the Meeting House and the homes of a large number of Priestley's friends and supporters, many of them respected Birmingham citizens.

Only twelve of the rioters were brought to court, of whom four were convicted and sentenced to death. The apparent ring-leader, Joseph Careless, was exonerated on spurious grounds. Claims for compensation came to more than £35000, but 'the weight of authority was against the dissenters' and 'no claim was allowed on behalf of the New Meeting House' .

Taken from: Old and New Birmingham
Author / Creator: Robert Dent
Publisher: Houghton & Hammond
Date: 1879
Copyright: By permission of the British Library Board
Shelfmark: 10351.k.2