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Priestley was more than just a scientist.

Byline: Carl Chinn

LIVING through an age of both turbulence and talent, Joseph Priestley was both a controversial and inspirational man.

The son of a west Yorkshire cloth dresser, his mother died while he was but a child. Reared mostly by an aunt, he grew into a bookish and thoughtful young man who felt called to the ministry.

Following his family's beliefs, he was enrolled at a Dissenting Academy at Daventry and in 1755 he became a minister in Surrey.

In the succeeding years, Priestley gained a reputation not only as a free thinker who challenged orthodox views but also as a teacher, scientist and philosopher.

A passionate advocate of tolerance for Jews, Muslims and Catholics, a fervent opponent of slavery and an avid supporter of intellectual liberty, Priestley was a firm believer in the importance of education and asserted the rights of women to learn.

Knowledgable in Latin, French, Greek, Hebrew and Italian, he wrote History and Present Station of Electric Sciences in 1767 after prompting from his friend Benjamin Franklin - the American statesman, diplomat, inventor and scientist.

That same year he was appointed pastor at Mill Hill Chapel, Leeds. Here, he also became deeply interested in Chemistry and in 1772 he wrote The History and Present State of Discoveries relating to Vision, Light and Colours.

The discoverer of nitrous oxide and hydrochloric acid, he isolated oxygen and identified it as essential for human life, and he investigated aerated water -which allowed the development of the pop trade.

Priestley came to Birmingham in 1780 when he took over the ministry at the New Meeting in Moor Street, which had opened for worship in 1732. He was in the town for 11 years, which he later described as the happiest of his life.

The Chapel was attended by Unitarians, members of a Dissenting sect which believed in freedom from dogma and that God is one being and not a trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. They had emerged out of Eng1ish Presbyterianism.

As a town with no bishop, guilds or powerful lord, Birmingham was seen as welcoming to Dissenters, and the Presbyterians had set up a chapel at the Old Meeting in 1689.

This was the year of the Glorious Revolution when the Protestant William of Orange from the Netherlands and his wife, Mary, pushed her brother, Catholic James II, from the throne.

The Old Meeting gave its name to Old Meeting Street which used to go between Worcester Street and Dudley Street.

It disappeared in the late 19th century, but New Meeting Street, shown on Westley's Map of 1731, still survives as a tiny cul-de-sac coming off Albert Street and running alongside St Michael's Catholic Church.

There was great excitement at the arrival of 'the celebrated Dr Priestley' and 'an awareness that he has taken up residence amongst us for the sake of facilitating his philosophical experiments'.

These interests led Priestley to join the renowned Lunar Society, along with Matthew Boulton, James Watt and others.

The minister's laboratory at his home was described by a Frenchman, Faujas Sant Fond. He was much impressed by 'a simple and ingenious apparatus for making experiments on inflammable gas extracted from iron and water reduced to vapour'.

Yet, though he is now best remembered as a scientist, Priestley regarded himself above all as a minister of religion and it was his religious opinions which aroused the antagonism of many local Anglicans.

In particular, he was prominent in the campaign to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts which discriminated against Dissenters, and he engaged in a controversy waged by pamphlets with two local Church of England clergymen. Increasingly accused of the atheism and godlessness, Priestley further drew the ire of his opponents with his support for the French Revolution.

They would be so enraged that they would unleash upon Birmingham one of three worst riots in its history - and more on that next week.


Then MEMORIAL... the statue of Joseph Priestley that stood in Victoria Square was moved to Chamberlain Square.' Now CHAMBERLAIN SQUARE... Joseph Priestley statue is now by Birmingham Central Library.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Jan 20, 2007
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