[1791] - Anti-Dissenter riots in Birmingham during which Joseph Priestley’s house is burned down by Church-and-King mob

The Birmingham Riots refers to a series of major disturbances during which loyalist ‘Church-and-King’ mobs attacked and destroyed the chapels and properties of local Dissenters, as well as prominent members of the Lunar Society. The riots were a violent expression of loyalist sentiment in opposition to the parliamentary campaigns of Protestant Dissenters for political and religious reform. They formed part of a wider anti-revolutionary activism that was developing in response to early enthusiasm for the French Revolution.

The violence began on 14 July 1791 as mobs gathered to protest against a banquet being held in a Birmingham hotel to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. Around ninety people attended the banquet, but as they left angry crowds threw stones before moving in to ransack the hotel. The violence continued throughout the following three days until the military arrived to restore order on 17 July. In total four Dissenting chapels were damaged or destroyed, and twenty-seven homes had been attacked. The most prominent victim of the riots was the radical scientist, philosopher and theologian Joseph Priestley. His home at Sparkbrook was destroyed in the violence, as was the New Meeting Chapel where he presided as a Presbyterian minister (the disturbances are often referred to as the Priestley Riots).

Evidence suggests that local Anglican officials were responsible for directing and coordinating the rioters. Although William Pitt’s government instructed the Birmingham magistrates to prosecute the ringleaders, officials were deeply reluctant to act. Only four of the fifty men eventually charged were convicted. The riots therefore announced a new climate of aggressive loyalist sentiment that was sharpened further by the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793.

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