it’s backfirin’ now

Josiah Wedgwood and his friends. A diverse lot, both batty, brilliant and eccentric, they are mostly relegated minor figures of eighteenth century English life today, but some of them changed the world…

When in 1785, Pitt’s abortive scheme for parliamentary reform was announced, Thomas Day spoke for them all when he wrote in contempt:

When faithless Senates venally betray,
When each degenerate noble is a slave,
When Britain falls an unresisting prey,
What part befits the generous and the brave?

—Description The Treacherous Rebel cartoon
Date circa 1791—James Gillray. source: WIKI

This is more an expression of their frustration than of their eupeptic optimism. But the optimism was there. They saw in the events in France and America the pointers to the future, and they rejoiced in their success. Not everyone shared their confidence and they met determined opposition. There was widespread anger at the beliefs of the Lunatics, as they were called. And when some of them held a dinner in Birmingham on July 14,1791, to commemorate the French Revolution, an angry mob rioted in protest. Withering packed his belongings in a wagon, covetred them with hay, and made for the open country; Priestley bolted with his family, first to London and eventually to America. Matthew Boulton and James Watt armed their employers at Soho, barricade their doors, and prepared to defend their beliefs. Only Priestley need have worried- his house was burnt to the ground, and with it his instruments, his library, and his manuscripts.

—Credit: Edgar Fahs Smith collection, University of Pennsylvania
This lithograph depicts the Birmingham mob ransacking and burning Priestley’s home and laboratory, Fair Hill, on the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Priestley and his family fled to safety, but the house, library, manuscripts, and scientific apparatus were lost. —Read More:

Alone they might have succumbed to such pressure but in their meetings and in their correspondence they presented a united front. They shared their hopes, their fears, and their resentments, and like all minorities under pressure, clung ever more tightly together. For such a feeling breeds loyalty; when allied to material success it also breeds confidence. And it was in the Lunar Society and its Midland ramifications that Wedgwood and his friends found their support, their certainty, and their authority.

Such solidarity was reinforced by intermarriage. The Darwins and the Wedgwood’s, for example, became almost inextricably intermixed. Robert Waring Darwin, son of Erasmus, married Susannah Wedgwood, daughter of Josiah; their son, the famous Charles Darwin, married his cousin Emma Wedgwood; and their daughter married the younger Josiah Wedgwood. In the nineteenth century the children of these marriages were to see the success of many of the aims of this strange and gifted circle.


Robert Dent:Joseph Priestley, a dissenter, was minister of the Old Meeting House. Priestly had written an inflammatory pamphlet that described ‘laying gunpowder’ under the ‘old building of error’ . This had caused alarm among supporters of the established church, who believed they were under threat. Priestley had gained notoriety for his criticism of an attack on the French Revolution by Edmund Bur

a conservative statesman and political thinker).

On 14 July 1791 Priestley and his followers met at a dinner to celebrate the second anniversary of the storming the Bastille. Their opponents took this as an opportunity for full scale riot. They attacked and burned the Meeting House and the homes of a large number of Priestley’s friends and supporters, many of them respected Birmingham citizens.

Only twelve of the rioters were brought to court, of whom four were convicted and sentenced to death. The apparent ring-leader, Joseph Careless, was exonerated on spurious grounds. Claims for compensation came to more than £35000, but ‘the weight of authority was against the dissenters’ and ‘no claim was allowed on behalf of the New Meeting House’ .Read More:

Related Posts

This entry was posted in Art History/Antiquity/Anthropology, Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>