What Led to the Birmingham Riots of 1791

History of the Churches and Sects, 1781-1791—Dr. Priestley and Catherine Hutton—Growth of Dissent—The Test Acts—Dr. Priestley and his opponents—Wilful misconstruction—Sympathy with the French Revolution—Gillray’s Cartoon : ” A Birmingham Toast”— An inflammatory hand-bill and its results—Announcement of the Meeting of July 14.

in entering upon the religious and political history of the few years which preceded that event which darkens our local history, with an indelible stain, and which seriously retarded the progress, civil, intellectual, and religious, of our town, we would endeavour to the utmost of our ability to free ourselves from all bias against, or in favour of any party whatever, to narrate the facts with truth and simplicity, to extenuate nothing, nor set down aught in malice.The decade which preceded the riots was one of great prosperity for the dissenters in Birmingham. In 1781 the Methodists, who had hitherto used the cast-off theatre in Moor Street, began for the first time to build for themselves, and completed the old meeting house in Cherry Street, (which was taken down in 1823,) ready for opening on the 7th of July 1782, the cost of its erection being about £1,200. The venerable founder of the society visited Birmingham on several occasions during the last few years of his life. He preached at the opening of the above-named meeting house; again in March 1783, although “dangerously ill,” he preached, under considerable temporary excitement, being “electrified, [not literally, we presume,] during the service,” and ventured to preach three quarters of an hour. In 1786 he spent more than a week in Birmingham; he again administered the sacrament to nearly seven hundred persons in 1787. In the same year he met with more than one unpleasant adventure during a stage-coach journey from Manchester to this town. He had secured, says his latest biographer, Mr. Tyerman, the whole of the coach that ran between Manchester and Birmingham for himself and friends. “Six packed themselves within, and eight arranged themselves without, and off they all set at midnight; but even the presence of fourteen Methodist preachers was not an insurance against accident. No doubt, many a hymn was sung as they whisked away through beautiful Cheshire scenery, the stars shining approvingly, and the fields all around wrapped in solemn silence; but, a little before three in the morning, when approaching Congleton, the coach broke beneath its unwonted burden, and had to be abandoned for another. In about an hour, number two was crippled like number one; while one of the horses was so knocked up as to be scarcely able to move at all. This Methodist monopoly of the Birmingham stage coach issued, not an a moonlight pleasure trip, but in a series of disasters which men so pious and so good had not expected. The distance was not great; but nineteen hours were spent in getting over it. The party arrived in Birmingham at 7 p.m.; Wesley, found a congregation waiting; he stepped out of the coach into the chapel, and began preaching without delay. ‘And such,’ says he, ‘was the goodness of God, that I found no more weariness when I had done than if I had rested all the day.’”
In 1789 Wesley was present at the opening of the second chapel of Methodism in Birmingham, in Bradford Street.
The Baptists and Independents also extended their sphere of labour in Birmingham, the former by the erection of a second meeting-house in Bond Street, which was opened November 15th, 1786; and the latter by the erection of a small meeting-house in Paradise Street, opened on Whit-Sunday, 1787.
The members of the Countess of Huntingdon’s connection, few though they were in number, had during this decade erected a small chapel in Peck Lane, and probably another in Bartholomew Street, but this latter may have been erected subsequent to the riots; it is included in Button’s list in 1795.
In 1789 the Roman Catholics found a home once more within the borders of the town from whence they had been banished just a century. A place of worship was erected (chiefly owing to the exertions of the Rev. John Nutt, the first pastor) on the borders of the Easy Hill estate, and dedicated to St. Peter.
The Jews, doubtless having grown a-weary of the miserable surroundings of their little synagogue in the Froggary, with its “drooping ensigns of poverty,” erected a new and larger synagogue in Severn Street, which was then pleasantly situated on the outskirts of the town, with an almost uninterrupted view of the country away as far as Edgbaston. The new building was dedicated September 23rd, 1791; the ceremony being performed by Mr. Phillips, Mr. Yates, and Mr. Levy, who, says the Gazette of that date, “sung the appointed psalms and songs in the sacred language with great judgment and melody.”
The latest of the new sects to erect a place of worship in the town was that of the Sweden-borgians. According to an interesting account of the early Swedenborgians in Birmingham, contributed by Mr. John Rabone to the Century of Birmingham Life (Vol. i, pp. 369-70.); the first building ever erected for this sect in England, or indeed in any part of the world, was in Birmingham, viz., the chapel in Newhall Street now known as Zion Chapel; which was consecrated and opened June 19th, 1794—only a few weeks before the outbreak of the riots. The officiating ministers were the Eevds. Eobert Hindmarsh and Joseph Proud ; and among those present at the opening services, were several prominent members of the New Meeting congregation, with their pastor, Dr. Priestley.
In our last notice of the churches and sects we referred to Catherine Button’s proposed migration to the ‘Old Meeting’ in the event of Dr. Priestley’s becoming pastor of that congregation. That migration took place very soon after the doctor’s acceptance of the charge, and in a letter to a friend at Leicester, during 1781, Miss Hutton speaks in glowing terms of the new pastor. “I have much to say to you,” she writes,” on the subject of Dr. Priestley. I look upon his character as a preacher to be as amiable, as his character as a philosopher is great. In the pulpit he is mild, persuasive, and unaffected, as his sermons are full of sound reasoning and good sense. He is not what is called an orator; he uses no action, no declamation; but his voice and manner are those of one friend speaking to another. If you will come to Birmingham, I will promise that you shall hear him preach; for my brother and I have formally become a part of his congregation. I cannot promise to introduce you to him, as at present I have not the honor of his acquaintance; but I shall lose no opportunity of procuring it.” (MS. copies of Miss Huttou’s letters in the possession of Mrs. W. Franks Beale ; the whole of which have been kindly placed at our disposal, and from which interesting extracts will toe made from time to time.)
This honour Miss Hutton was not long in procuring, as will be seen from the following extract from another letter to the same lady, dated July 16th, 1783: “Your letter contains the second proof I have that I am spoken handsomely of by Dr. Priestley; the first was so much in my favour that I dare not repeat it. You may be assured it gives me pleasure to be praised by him whom all men praise; but I cannot help confessing that not more praise is due to my talents than to the Doctor’s penetration in finding them out; for I have not been in his company more than three times, and during them all I was awed by the consciousness of my own great inferiority.”
While all the dissenting sects were thus making considerable progress, not a single new place of worship was erected in connection with the Established Church—although a small chapel, “converted” from a private residence, was opened a few months subsequent to the riots—and this rapid growth of dissent may possibly have alarmed the Church party; as in those days, when toleration was almost unknown, all dissenters were looked upon as dangerous to the welfare of the State—especially as there had been during the same period repeated endeavours on the part of the latter to obtain a repeal of the Corporation and Tests Acts. In these endeavours the name of Dr. Priestley was at all times prominent. Nor was he silent on local matters, as we have already seen in the question of the introduction of controversial theology into the Birmingham Library. He fearlessly proclaimed to the world, in his innumerable books and tracts, his religious and political convictions; and perhaps in this he was unwisely over-zealous, as even so ardent an admirer as Catherine Hutton, admits. “A circumstance,” she says, “which particularly rendered Birmingham a likely theatre for mischief was the zeal of Dr. Priestley—fervent, though not intemperate. Having fully assured himself of the truth in religion, he conceived it his duty to go abroad into the world and endeavour to persuade all mortals to embrace it, an idea which has done more mischief than any which ever entered the erring mind of man. He sometimes, too, in his sermons, glanced at politics—a subject that should never be mingled with religion—and this treasured up wrath for him against the day of wrath. I look upon Dr. Priestley as a good man, attached to his King and country, and meaning well to every creature; but, though unintentionally, and
himself the first sufferer, he was, I think, one of the primary causes of the riots in Birmingham, by rousing the spirit of bigotry and all un-charitableness in others. He was himself so unconscious of having done wrong, nay, he was so certain of having done only right, that his friends took him almost by force from his house, and saved him from the vengeance of a mob who would have torn him to pieces.”
He held a controversy with the Revds. S. Madan and E. Burn—two of the Episcopalian clergy of the town—and the paper warfare on both sides waged hotly. “To dispute with the Doctor,” says Hutton drily, “was deemed the road to preferment. He had already made two bishops, and there were still several heads which wanted mitres, and others who cast a more humble eye upon tithes and glebe lands.” Several of the clergy did not hesitate to stoop to a wilful, and, it is to be feared, malignant misconstruction of his words. In one of his pamphlets the Doctor had instituted a comparison between the progress of free inquiry and the action of gunpowder; he writes :
“The present silent propogation of truth may even be compared to those causes in nature which lie dormant for a time, but which in proper circumstances act with the greatest violence. We are, as it were, laying gunpowder, grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition, which a single spark may hereafter inflame, so as to produce an instantaneous explosion; in consequence of which, that edifice, the erection of which has been the work of ages, may be overturned in a moment, and so effectually, as that the same foundation can never be built upon again.”
This obviously figurative expression was actually laid hold of by the clergy as a covert threat of a new Gunpowder Plot, for blowing up all the churches of the Establishment! (1). It was in vain that the Doctor expostulated against such misinterpretation of his words, and explained that he referred merely to the powerful force of argument; it was in vain that he pointed out the blamelessness of his life among them; the ignorant masses—and, alas ! how ignorant those masses were, how blindly they were led by their spiritual pastors and masters, we of the present age can never fully realize—believed the libellous charges, and hated Priestley and all “Socinians ” (or “Priestleyans,” as they were beginning to be styled), as became good Churchmen and loyal subjects of King George. Right or wrong, the parsons were against this “formidable Heresiarch,” as he had been dubbed, and as they had the consciences of the masses in their keeping, it behoved the latter to follow their leaders without question; and “D—n Priestley” was the loyal and patriotic sentiment chalked up on every blank wall in Birmingham.
But by far the greatest crime of all which Dr. Priestley and the “Socinians” had committed, was that of sympathising with the lovers of freedom who had just succeeded in overturning the throne of Louis XVI. in France. This sympathy Gillray, the caricaturist, turned to account in a bitterly hostile and infamously libellous print—on the occasion of the memorable dinner to which we shall refer presently—representing the leading ” Jacobins” of the day drinking “A Birmingham Toast,” proposed by Dr. Priestley, “The —— Head here!” i.e., in a Communion salver which he holds aloft, himself drinking the toast from a chalice. The Jacobins are represented as eagerly welcoming this toast; Sheridan, pouring out a fresh glass of sherry, of which he has already emptied several bottles, is made to say (in one of those inartistic ” balloon ” inscriptions which disfigure all the older caricatures), ” I’ll pledge you that toast,” his remark being further garnished with choice flowers of speech which we need not quote here; Sir Cecil Wray, frugally drinking small-beer, exclaims, “0 heav’ns! why I would empty a Chelsea Pensioner’s small-beer barrel in such a cause;” Fox, as chairman, with punch-bowl before him, cries, “My soul and body, both upon the toast!”
Horne Tooke, who sits next him, drinking “Hollands” says, “I have not drank so glorious a toast since I was Parson of Brentford;” while in the corner, opposite Dr. Priestley, his co-religionist, Dr. Theophilus Lindsey cries “Amen ! Amen !” as he drinks the toast in brandy. In the background are several cadaverous-looking pietists, supposed to represent Dr. Priestley’s congregation. The print is exceedingly vigorous in design and execution, but as full of venom as an etching from Gillray’s needle could possibly be. A carefully engraved copy of this plate, divested of the balloon-like scrolls containing the inscriptions, appears on page 215.
But Gillray was not alone in thus taking advantage of Priestley’s sympathy with the Revolutionists of France. An inflammatory hand-bill, purporting to come from the Doctor, was fabricated in London, brought to Birmingham, and a few copies privately scattered under the table at an inn. It ran as follows :
“My Countrymen—The second year of Gallic Liberty is nearly expired. At the commencement of the third, on the 14th of this month, it is devoutly to be wished that every enemy to civil and religious despotism would give his sanction to the majestic common cause by a public celebration of the anniversary. Remember that on the 14th of July, the Bastille, that ‘high altar and castle of despotism,’ fell. Remember the enthusiasm peculiar to the cause of liberty, with which it was attacked. Remember that generous humanity that taught the oppressed, groaning under the weight of insulted rights, to save the lives of oppressors! Extinguish the mean prejudices of nations! and let your numbers be collected and sent as a free-will offering to the National Assembly.
“But is it possible to forget that our own Parliament is venal? your -Minister hypocritical? your clergy legal oppressors? the Reigning Family extravagant? the crown of a certain great personage becoming every day too weighty for the head that wears it? Too weighty for the people who gave it? Your taxes partial and excessive? Your Representation a cruel insult upon the Sacred Rights of Property, Religion, and Freedom?
“But on the 14th of this month, prove to the political sycophants of the day that you reverence the Olive Branch; that you will sacrifice to public tranquility, till the majority shall exclaim, The Peace of Slavery is worse than the War of Freedom. Of that moment let tyrants beware!”
This seditious hand-bill, as may be imagined, added fuel to the fire of hatred which burned in the hearts of the masses against the dissenters. The latter immediately offered a reward of one hundred guineas for the discovery of the writer, printer, publisher, or distributor of the inflammatory address, and disclaimed all complicity in the matter, or concurrence in the sentiments of the writer thereof (2). But this was all in vain; the incensed multitude refused to believe in the innocence or loyalty of the dissenters, and watched their opportunity to punish the supposed traitors. This was soon afforded, by the announcement of a meeting to take place at the Hotel in Temple Row, on the 14th of July, 1791, to celebrate the anniversary of the destruction of the Bastille. Dr. Priestley and his followers were at once identified with this celebration, by the masses of the people, (who were opposed to the French Revolution,) inasmuch as the worthy doctor had been nominated as a citizen of the now Republic, in recognition of his able reply to Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, The meeting was announced in the Gazette, (in an advertisement dated “Hotel, Birmingham, July 7,” a week previous to the date fixed for the celebration,) and immediately under it appeared another advertisement to the effect that a list of the gentlemen who were present at the meeting should be published on the following day. This latter announcement was evidently intended to intimidate the projectors of the meeting, and to alarm the inhabitants.
In a most interesting narrative of the sufferings of the Hutton family during the Riots, written by the historian’s daughter, Catherine, she says:
“Dr. Priestley admired my father, and frequently took tea with us, without ceremony. On Wednesday, the 6th, he drank tea with us, and asked my father to join the party at the dinner. ‘I wish well to liberty everywhere,’ replied my father, ‘but public dinners are out of my way.’ The doctor then asked Mr. Berington, the author of Lives of Henry the Second, and of Abelurd and Heloise, who was also with us, if he would dine. ‘No,’ said Mr. Berington, ‘we Catholics stand better with government than you Dissenters, and we will not make common cause with you.’ On Monday, the 11th, the advertisement respecting the dinner appeared again in the Birmingham newspaper, and immediately under it was another informing the public that the names of the gentlemen who should dine at the hotel on Thursday would be published, price one halfpenny. This seemed a signal for mischief; but mischief was unknown in Birmingham, and no one regarded it.
“On Tuesday, the 12th, I went to Bennett’s Hill [Washwood Heath], to pass a few days with my mother. In the evening my brother [Thomas Hutton] came, and told us that a riot was expected on Thursday; but so little was I interested by the intelligence, that it left no impression on my mind. The word riot, since so dreadful, conveyed no other idea than that of verbal abuse.”
The Huttons were not alone in disregarding the rumours of a disturbance, as we shall see in our next chapter.


(1) This passage is referred to in an old poem entitled ” Topsy-Turvy,” published in 1793 :—
” E’en now is your church undermined,
With Priestley’s Polemical Nitre, Which exploded you’ll presently find, The red night-cap take place of the Mitre.”

(2) * Another reward of a hundred guineas was also offered by the local authorities, and a third hundred by the Government.

Source: Old and New Birmingham. Originally published in weekly numbers between 1878 and 1880 by Houghton and Hammond, Scotland Passage, Birmingham.