Joseph Priestley: Son of Birstall

front cover of the book 'Joseph Priestley son of Birstall'

Dr Joseph Priestley was born in Birstall, a small village near Leeds, England. A great man whose contributions to science, theology, civil rights and more still have effect today, Priestley, whose statue stands in Birstall Market Place, was a unique voice: he helped discover oxygen, opposed slavery, pushed for votes for all men and, through his campaigns for reforms, even helped to formulate the written constitutions of the United States and France. But all this came at a cost. Priestley's championing of ordinary men made him unpopular with the establishment, which mounted a hate campaign that led to a mob attack on his home, forcing the doctor to flee for his life. Upper Batley historian Dr Stephen Bartle in 2004 published his book Son of Birstall. Here he reveals just why Priestley was forced to flee.

Son of Birstall

Extract from 'Joseph Priestley Son of Birstall' by Dr Stephen Bartle

The year of Priestley's bicentennial has drawn to a close and much was done to make it a memorable occasion with many new insights into the genius of this polymath of polymaths coming to light; such as his anticipation of 'black holes' in astronomy and the final proof, using modern scientific techniques, of his theory of phlogiston.

However, in one fundamental respect in all the articles and tributes to him we have failed Priestley dismally. The question we must ask ourselves is: why did this successful man of science, and so many other disciplines, jeopardise his achievements by taking on the establishment in the matter of Parliamentary reform? Wilberforce, early in his parliamentary career, introduced a bill for the reform to the penal code. When it failed he gave it up and turned to the abolition of slavery (which was supported by Priestley).

Why then should Priestley pursue reform? The answer is because it offended his Christian conscience and sense of injustice. He held the view that governments should attend to the happiness of ordinary people; a matter which never concerned those who participated in the management of affairs.

So, Priestley was willing to press his energies to exposing the root cause of suffering endured by the common people who had no say in their affairs.

As a consequence he was recognised as the leader of the movement towards parliamentary reform by the King and the government. This singled him out for special attention. There is considerable evidence Priestley was made the victim of a cold blooded deliberate plot to mislead the public by falsely displaying him not as the enlightened reformer, but as a rabid republican, hell set on the execution of the King and the establishment of a republican government. This was conducted with icy skill and ruthless planning. A violently seditious handbill was printed and distributed around the Midlands and a false rumour was widely spread throughout the region to the effect that, Priestley 'Gunpowder Joe' had toasted the King's head on a plate! This, on July 14th 1791, preceded the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

This plot was not confined to the provinces, for James Gillray in London produced an elaborate cartoon which appeared simultaneously entitled The Hopes of the Party Prior to July 14 1791. This shows the Whigs beheading George III at the block, with Fox the leader of the Whigs thinly disguised in a mask, acting as executioner and referring to Charles, and the Prince of Wales holding the King's head while Priestley offers comfort to the King. "MY dear, brother, we must all die once...in fact a man ought to be glad if lie can serve his country by bringing about a glorious, revolution..." For such service Glillray was to receive a pension of 200 a year. All these infamous lies were dispensed to English people when the French king was about to accept constitutional government based on manhood suffrage and abandon the old absolutist monarchy.

The Priestley riots, which were the consequence of the whipping up of "popular fury" as they were described in the pro government press, resulted in the destruction of the Unitarian meeting houses (Priestley was a Unitarian) and Priestley's home and life's work. It was no casual riot but a cold, deliberate act of wanton intimidation. Priestley was convinced the authorities were involved in the plot and the Gillray cartoon suggests that they government lay behind its orchestration.

The emotions directed against Priestley were almost certainly directed to encourage the people to lynch him. He narrowly escaped from Birmingham, reaching Dudley with the help of friends. He then crossed the moors on horseback to Bridgewater and was lost but reached Kidderminster. He left by a hired chaise (a light carriage) for Worcester and took a mail coach to London where he was safe. The driver of the chaise told his friend that if he had known that he was carrying the notorious Dr Priestley he would have turned the vehicle over in an attempt to kill him, no matter at what risk to himself. Thus, Priestley sacrificed himself for English democracy.

The King wrote to Melville, the home secretary: "As the mischief did occur it was impossible not to feel pleased at its having fallen on Priestley rather than another, that he might feel the wickedness of the doctrines of democracy that he was propagating." In 1880 the franchise in Britain was extended from nine per cent of adult males to 60 per cent and in 1913 it was extended to 90 per cent. May we remember Dr Joseph Priestley for his sacrifices for the ordinary, unprivileged people, of Britain as the greatest Briton ever.

© 2004 Stephen Bartle. All Rights Reserved.