Rioting, Dissent and the Church in Late Eighteenth Century Britain: The Priestley Riots of 1791
thesisposted on 30.05.2013, 12:00 by Jonathan Mark Atherton
This thesis examines the origins, aftermath and legacy of the Birmingham Priestley Riots of 1791. Since the 1950s, the historiographical elevation of the crowd has generated a renewed interest in popular protest. The Priestley Riots have proved to be a prominent focal point, with historians persistently revisiting the debates surrounding their origins. The first part of this thesis returns to the issue of what caused the tumults. Rather than examine the riots in isolation, the thesis traces the longer-term decline in relations between Anglicans and Dissenters in Birmingham and Britain. The Priestley Riots are then placed into the context of the wider British reaction to the French Revolution. It is argued that the outbreak of rioting was caused by a combination of both religious and political grievances. The second part of the thesis examines the prosecutions of the rioters and the compensation claims made by the victims. It is suggested that the acquittal of the majority of rioters and the victims’ inability to claim full financial remuneration resulted from three factors. Firstly, the failures of the local law enforcement agencies; secondly, the sustained animosity directed towards Dissenters; and thirdly, the idiosyncrasies of the eighteenth century legal system. Finally, the thesis considers the longer-term legacy of the riots for Birmingham’s Dissenters. The conventional perception, that the riots had a ruinous impact, is overturned. Through examining Dissenters’ congregational sizes, their choice of ministers and their involvement in wider Birmingham society, it is argued that, given the tumultuous events of July 1791, Birmingham Dissenters underwent a surprisingly rapid recovery.