8 October 2012

The Dinner That Caused a Riot?

A BIRMINGHAM TOAST, published 23 July 1791 following the dinner
at the Hotel which fired the Birmingham riots beginning 14 July 1791.
Published in London.

Visit the Hotel here

The image is meant to depict the Constitutional Society of Birmingham that held a 'French Revolution Dinner' at Birmingham's Hotel to commemorate the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1791. The event has been transformed into a satirical cartoon by James Gillray, representing the London viewpoint of the riots and containing a number of false embelishments, one being that Joseph Priestley (standing, second from left) did not attend the dinner at the Hotel, nor did many of the others shown (see below) who lived a good distance from Birmingham. The dinner had caused a stir amongst some of Birmingham's inhabitants who believed that those attending were unpatriotic, and who had been antagonised by a seditious hand-bill that had been distributed a few days before the dinner, though all at the dinner denied any connection with it. But this was before France's King had been executed (which occured in January 1793), and before the full bloody violence of the revolution had truly begun. James Gillray took a conservative stance to the Revolution from the beginning and often ridiculed both it and those who believed in it's ideals.

On the evening of the dinner, the 80 or 90 diners were hissed at as they arrived, then the rioting began later that evening when a mob arrived at the Hotel and started smashing windows. The mob were pursuaded to move on by the Hotel's proprietor Thomas Dadley, but then the rioting continued for another three days. It was easy for those critical of the Revolution in France to blame the dinner, but as we have found more recently in the riots of August 2011, one thing may trigger an anger that has been deep rooted for a considerable amount of time. Joseph Priestley, who was pinpointed by Gillray, was a religious dissenter (specifically, a Unitarian), and he with a large number of other dissenters were targeted by the rioters and their homes destroyed. Priesltley, although not present, describes the dinner as it led up to the riot, and specifically mentions how the chair of the dinner was a church of England man:

"When the company met, a croud [sic] was assembled at the door, and some of them hissed, and shewed [sic] other marks of disapprobation, but no material violence was offered to any body. Mr. Keir, a member of the church of England, took the chair; and when they had dined, drank their toasts, and sung the songs which had been prepared for the occasion, they dispersed. This was about five o'clock, and the town remained quiet till about eight. It was evident, therefore, that the dinner was not the proper cause of the riot which followed: but that the mischief had been pre-concerted, and that this particular opportunity was laid hold of for the purpose."
For Priestley, the dinner was a contrived reason for rioting, as it was easier than voicing fears and predjudices towards the dissenting groups in Birmingham. But what causes riots is something that we may never be able to truly describe, there is often a friction that builds up between different groups of people who want different things, and from the fear of the desires of others.

The print reads: 
A BIRMINGHAM TOAST, as given on the 14th of July, by the ----------* Revolution Society
Joseph Priestley (standing) holds up a chalice and communion plate and states: "The King's* Head, here!"
Sir Cecil Wray (on our left) with a reddened face, pours himself some sherry and exclaims "Damn my eyes! but I'll pledge you that Toast tho Hell gapes for me". In the orange coat Richard B. Sheridan declares"O Heavins [sic]! why I empty a Chelsea Pensioner's small-beer barrel, in such a cause!". Charles James Fox's (centre) portly face is also reddened and as he raises his glass he says"My Soul & Body, both, upon the Toast!!!". Next to Fox is Horne Tooke who states"I have not drunk so glorious a Toast since I was Parson of Brentford, & kept it up with Balf & McQuirk!". To the right a rather drunk looking Theophilus Lindsey is saying"Amen, Amen". Behind this group are charicatured religious dissenters, from left to right saying:
"Hear our Prayers: & preserve us from Kings, & Whores of Babylon!!"
"Put enimity between us & the ungodly and bring us down the Heads of all Tyrants & usurpers quickly good Lord--Hear us"
"O, grant the wishes of these inheritance"
The frame on the back wall shows St. Paul's Cathedral, with three pigs eating from a trough, underneath it reads: 'A PIG's STYE, a View from Haskney'

* There are a couple of alterations within the above image, firstly the word 'King's' has been written into Priestley's quote, though later productions show only a dash (both above). Also, at the base of the image a word has been covered up (see below), and other prints show this incorporated. It may be that this was one of the original prints by Gillray and the alterations were made for legal reasons. All those at the dinner were adamant that no toast was made for the head of the King.


  1. Interestingly I have a 12 page letter written at the time to my 4xGreat Grandfather, detailing the activities of the mob when on the rampage.Their activities paused slightly when they found Priestley's wine cellar (!)but otherwsie continued until the army were called out.

  2. That's really interesting Mike, who was your gggg.Grandfather and who was the letter from? I'm intrigued! Do you have a scan or photograph of the letter that you would be able to email me at all? My email address is at the bottom of the blog, and it would be an amazing document. William Hutton wrote an interesting contemporary account of the riot, but the only whole book by an historian was by Vivian Bird in the 1970s (both below).
    Hutton, William, "A Narrative of the Riots in Birmingham, July 1791" in The Life of William Hutton.
    Vivian Bird, The Priestley Riots, 1791, and The Lunar Society.