10 July 2013

I PREDICT A RIOT!

'The Test ____' published 20th February 1790. Depicting the percieved
threat of Dissenters to 'Church and King'. This cartoon helps to depict
some of the tensions leading up to the Priestley or 'Church and King'
riots in Birmingham on 14th July 1791.
Joseph Priestley is depicted in the bottom right corner.
'The Flame of Liberty' is about to burn down the building represented
by the symbols of Church (to the left) and King (to the right).

























The cartoon above (published February 1790) is fictional, but depicts the perceived threat of the religious Dissenters by the mainstream Anglican church. Joseph Priestley (second image), a Dissenter, is shown as part of a mob bent on the destruction of Church and King (third image). The following post will explore this backdrop to the Priestley riots (also called the Church and King riots, as the mob were for "Church and King") that began on 14th July 1791, and were directed at the Dissenters.

After the Revolution in France there was a rising feeling in England that political change could occur here as well, both from those who desired it and those who feared it. But unlike France, the desire for political change here was greatly tied up with religion, as many fighting for political reform were religious Dissenters who questioned the Anglican church. Dissenters were not allowed to become Members of Parliament, nor study at university, due to the Test Acts that had been written during the Restoration to prevent Catholics gaining power. They wished to change this so that they could have more say, but Parliamnet seemed rooted in opposition to this. As well as this though, Dissenters, and others, fought for universal suffrage, the removal of Rotton Boroughs (boroughs with only a handful of residents where MP's could buy their way in) and to allow growing towns like Birmingham to send members to Parliament (as at this time Birmingham's thousands of residents had no representation in Parliament).

Dissenters attack the Church

Due to the restraint on education many ambitious Dissenters entered trade and manufacturing, which is why there was a strong base of Dissenting groups in Birmingham. By far the largest group were the Unitarians, of which Joseph Priestley was a part, as well as being preacher at the New Meeting House on Moor Street. Priestley was highly outspoken in matters of religion and politics, which worried many; Samuel Johnson stated that Priestley's 'work unsettles everything'.* After the French Revolution Priestley's fervour stepped up a notch, at one point comparing free enquiry to 'laying gunpowder, grain by grain'.* Although he later declared that the allusion to the Gunpowder Plot was unintentional, he became set in the eyes of his critics as a dangerous man, and was nicknamed Gunpowder Joe. Perhaps if Priestley's and the other Dissenters ideas on political reform had not been tied up with religion the story of this country may have been a different one.

Since the commencement of the French Revolution the friction between groups and ideas was heightened, there was fear of the air of revolution and at the beginning of 1790 Samuel Parr wrote that a 'storm is gathering, depend upon it [...] and if the church does not exert itself it will fall'.** The church certainly did exert itself as in 1790 George Croft preached at St. Martin's against the Dissenters and warned that 'while their meeting-houses are open they are weakening and almost demolishing the whole fabric of Christianity'.** The reply from Unitarian minister John Hobson was that Croft was 'viciously prejudiced [...] persecuting and abusive'. And Joseph Priestley himself was a prolific writer and published many pamphlets and leaflets addressing his opponents head-on. Within Birmingham a specific committee was formed to oppose the Dissenter groups, and by the end of 1790 troops were ordered as rioting or similar disorder seemed highly possible. This died down but in July 1791, after the the French Revolution Dinner was announced, trouble began to stir again.**

Over the next few days I will post some of the pamphlets, the replies that were published and other events leading to the riots.

NOTES
* References on request
** This paragraph written using research from: R. B. Rose, The Priestley Riots of 1791

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