Joseph Priestley and the Birmingham Riots

The Iron Room

Rioters sacking Joseph Priestley’s house and laboratory, 1781 [WK/B11/8187]

The Birmingham Riots of 1791 have their origins in the years before Joseph Priestley came to live in Birmingham, when in 1793 he and others attempted to repeal the Corporation and Test Acts of the previous century. These were a series of laws which prevented those who belonged to religions other than the Church of England from holding a position of public office. It meant that those practising the Catholic, Jewish and non-conformist religions (e.g. Quakers, Unitarians and Methodists) were excluded from working in local or national government. The attempt to repeal the act failed and as a result Priestley wrote a pamphlet suggesting the reform of the established church.

After Priestley moved to Birmingham in 1781, he became Minister of the New Meeting Unitarian Church, one of the largest and wealthiest dissenting congregations in England. He devoted most of his…

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