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Rampaging through the streets of Brum.

Byline: Carl Chinn

IT was one of the most destructive periods in the history of Birmingham, those five days in July 1791 when a raging mob burned and pillaged the homes of many of the town's wealthiest citizens.

Rampaging out from the centre of Brum, the rioters caused damage worth tens of thousands of pounds. They burned valuable books, they smashed scientific equipment and they forced notable families to flee for their safety.

Led by a hard-core of ruffians, thousands of folk were drawn into the disorders and for almost a week they dominated Birmingham and its immediate neighbourhood, wreaking havoc and spreading terror.

Tension had been rising in the town for months before the unruliness broke out, but the spark for the outburst was a dinner held for 80-odd gentlemen on Thursday, July 14, at Dadley's Hotel in Temple Row.

Their intention was to celebrate the second anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille and the onset of the French Revolution.

Among the established order in England this event had aroused great fear that the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity might spread across the channel.

Many poorer people were also vehemently against the revolution - for despite their poverty, they were staunch royalists and opposed to what they believed were un-English ideas.

As a result there was strident opposition to the gathering at Dadley's and although the diners also toasted the King and the constitution, they were accused of disloyalty and unpatriotic behaviour.

This notion was bolstered by the fact that most of the men at celebration were Dissenters, people who did not agree with the beliefs of the Church of England.

In an age of religious bigotry, such non-Anglicans were viewed suspiciously as potential traitors and even before the meeting, a large crowd had hissed and hustled the celebrators and when they left the hotel "they found greater difficulty in returning to their homes".

In particular, the demonstrators looked out for one man upon whom to vent their anger - Dr Joseph Priestley.

Acclaimed as a scientist, teacher and thinker as much as a theologian and minister, Priestley was seen by his supporters as mild, gentle and kind. Yet he was often tactless in his words and stubborn in the certainty of his own beliefs.

Indeed, he exacerbated the dislike of him when he explained that he and his kind were "laying gunpowder, grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition, which in a single spark may hereafter inflame, so as to produce an instantaneous explosion".

Inflammatory words such as these stirred up an already volatile situation and led to the mob seeking out Priestley on July 14.

They were unable to find him at Dadley's Hotel. He had not been present at the dinner, for as it was stated of him later: "Public assemblages of a political or convivial nature were not the chosen recreation of the philosopher and theologian."

Disappointed at not finding their target, the mob smashed all the windows in the hotel and then chased down to the New Meeting House. The gates and doors were forced open, the pews were demolished, the fittings were ripped out and burnt, and then the building itself was set alight.

When the inferno died out, a valuable theological library had been reduced to cinders and all that remained were four blackened outside walls.

Later rebuilt, in 1861 the chapel was sold to the Catholic Church. Rededicated to St Michael, it became associated with Birmingham's Italians from the late 1800s until the Second World War and since then has become connected with Birmingham's Polish community.

Another mob had razed to the ground the Old Meeting House, close to the Bull Ring. Badly damaged before in riots in 1715, it had to be rebuilt in 1802. It remained a meeting house for the Unitarians until 1881 when it was sold and disappeared under the extension of New Street Station.

Despite the destruction, the vandals were not yet sated. Intent upon finding the Unitarian minister, the cry went up: 'To Dr Priestley's!'

To Priestley's they went - as we shall find out next week.


OUTBURST...a cartoon of the dinner at Dadley's Hotel in Temple Row.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Jan 27, 2007
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