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In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
page: 25


NINETY years have passed since Dr. Joseph Priestley died at Northumberland in Pennsylvania. He is buried there with his wife and youngest son, Henry, and one by one a group of American descendants have been gathered to his side in that simple graveyard. With his scientific achievements I am incompetent to deal; but it seems to me that his reputation is not lessened by the lapse of years. He had the divining intellect which suggested even more than it achieved. He told to his contemporaries his successes, and even his mistakes, with the eager simplicity of a child of genius. His statue, modelled from Fuseli’s portrait, was placed in the Oxford Museum by a committee co‐operating with Prince Albert; his name figures on the great frieze surrounding the Palais d’Industrie in the Champs Elysées; and Birmingham erected page: 26 a statue to him in 1874, the centenary of the discovery of oxygen.

When this statue was inaugurated, my mother, who was born in Pennsylvania, was probably the only person living in England who could personally recall Joseph Priestley. She was seven years old when he died. He had taught her to read, and her memory of him remained perfectly clear and vivid. The delicate features of the old man, framed in thin locks of silvery hair, are recorded in the portrait by Artaud before me as I write. This presentment, rather than any of those by Flaxman, is what my mother affirmed to be the real grandfather she remembered. It may not be without interest to try and recover some traits of the man as he was, according to the last echo of oral tradition. Also to this end indirect help is given by a record which he left of his private life, an old‐fashioned reticent autobiography, which, though several times reprinted, is hardly known in general literature, because it is filled from cover to cover, not with records of the scientific discoveries which were making him famous from one end of Europe to the other, but with thoughts and interpreta‐ page: 27 tions interpretations pertaining to the Scriptures and life eternal. It is impossible to look upon the faded manuscript, in its century‐old binding of white skin, without a feeling of deep, pathetic reverence. Matthew, Paul, John—with them he wrestled single‐handed, if by any means he might wring out the truth of things divine. He scarcely takes the trouble to note those experiments on electricity, gas, and water which earned for him, even in his own lifetime, the recognition of the civilized world. To this autobiography his eldest son appended a supplementary chapter recording the last years and peaceful death‐bed, at which even the little grandchildren were present.

Modern readers will perhaps regret the destruction by Dr. Priestley himself of the great bulk of his correspondence; and in the first edition of the ‘Life’ Mr. Priestley expresses a sentiment which falls on the ear like a tone from some old‐fashioned musical instrument forgotten of men:—

“The work,” says he, “might have been made more interesting, as well as entertaining, had I deemed myself at liberty to have published page: 28 letters addressed to my father by persons of eminence in this country (America) as well as in Europe. But those communications, which were intended to be private, shall remain so, as I do not think I have a right to amuse the public either against or without the inclinations of those who confided their correspondence to his care.”

Many letters have, however, been preserved from oblivion; some have been privately printed in New York, others are in my possession, and now that full ninety years have passed since the last letter was written and received, and that few can even remember in his old age the reverent and scrupulous son, no such obligation need restrain the pen, though the written personal record is at best but meagre.

It can, however, be supplemented from other sources. Priestley made a great impression upon his contemporaries, as is witnessed by the extraordinary number of portraits and medallions executed in his lifetime; nor did the political caricaturists spare him. Moreover, the dignified household, marked by plain living and high thinking, and at all times poor in worldly goods, became the centre of a very whirlpool. The page: 29 Birmingham riots raged round Priestley and his friends, and were full of ferocious passion, full also of incident, and of that strange blending of the sublime and the commonplace in which lies the deepest pathos. We have many letters recounting how people lost their property, their loose coin, their keys, and their clothes, as well as precious papers. We are told how the young people of Priestley’s congregation, Mary R. and Sarah S. and their brothers, were hurried away along the country roads by their frightened parents, the mob roaring and racing a mile or two behind; and one of the girls afterwards wrote the best account we have of those four days. In the midst of the turmoil stood Priestley, calm and patient, forbidding the young men of his congregation to strike a blow. In the letters of his contemporaries, rather than in any documents furnished by himself, we must seek for the man.

He was born in Yorkshire, of an old Presbyterian stock; one branch of the family acquired wealth and lived at Whiteways, but his own immediate ancestors were farmers and clothiers, people of substance in the yeoman class. We page: 30 can trace them accurately as far back as the middle of the seventeenth century, when one Phœbe Priestley, after wrestling with fever in her household, was herself stricken and “lay like a lamb before the Lord” on her death‐bed. Her husband wrote a long and touching account of all she said and did, that her children might know what manner of mother they had lost. These people were presumably of the same stock as the Priestleys of Soylands, who run back into the Middle Ages.

The children of the Priestley families were all named after Scriptural characters. They were Josephs, Timothys, and Sarahs from one generation to another. The Bible was stamped into them, and from it they drew all the inspiration of their lives. That gifted Joseph, who was to make so singular an impression on his time, and to be associated with Shelburne and Sandwich, with Captain Cook, D’Alembert, and Diderot, and to receive honours from the Empress Catherine of Russia, was born on March 13th (old style) in the year 1733, at Fieldhead, a small stone house about six miles south‐west of Leeds. It is now taken down, but I visited it page: 31 in my youth, and made a rough sketch, which shows that it was rather smaller than the house of Shakespeare’s birth at Stratford‐on‐Avon, but of much the same type, and probably very ancient. The front door led into the house‐place; a division had been made to accommodate two families, but originally, one hundred and sixty years ago, it would have been a solid and respectable homestead, and fifty years later we find Priestley writing to his sister, Mrs. Crouch, at the address of Fieldhead.

He was the eldest of six, and when quite a little fellow was sent to his maternal grandfather, a farmer at Shapton, near Wakefield, and remained there till his mother’s death in 1740.

“It is but little,” he says, “that I can recollect of my mother. I remember, however, that she was careful to teach me the Assembly’s Catechism, and to give me the best instruction the little time that I was at home. Once in particular, when I was playing with a pin, she asked me where I got it; and on my telling her that I found it at my uncle’s, who lived very near to my father’s, and where I had been playing with my cousins, she made me carry it page: 32 back again; no doubt to impress my mind, as it could not fail to do, with the clear idea of the distinction of property, and of the importance of attending to it. She died in the hard winter of 1739, not long after being delivered of my youngest brother, and is said to have dreamed a little before her death that she was in a delightful place which she particularly described, and imagined to be heaven. The last words which she spoke, as my aunt informed me, were: ‘Let me go to that fine place.’”

Quaint little picture of the Puritan woman whose lesson to her son was to remain indelible, and to be recalled by the old man after a long career of labour and honourable success!

The boy’s life now underwent a radical change. On his mother’s death he was taken home, the next brother replacing him in the farmer’s household, and before long a sister of his father’s, married to a wealthy man of the name of Keighley, offered to adopt and consider him as her own child. This was when Priestley was nine years old, and for twenty years Mrs. Keighley survived and kept her promise. Her husband, “remarkable for piety and for public page: 33 spirit,” died soon after the adoption of the child, leaving the greater part of his fortune to the widow, and much of it at her disposal after her death. From this time forward the boy had every advantage of education so far as it could be obtained at a time when the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were strictly closed to Dissenters. He was well instructed in the learned languages, of which he says he had acquired a pretty good knowledge at the age of sixteen.

His aunt naturally wished her adopted son to become a minister, and he entered into her views; but becoming, as it was thought, consumptive, he took another great intellectual start. The dead languages were laid aside, and with a view to a mercantile situation the youth learned three modern languages—French, Italian, and High Dutch, all without a master—and in the first and last, says he, “I translated and wrote letters for an uncle of mine who was a merchant, and who intended to put me into a counting‐house at Lisbon. A house was actually engaged to receive me there, and everything was nearly ready for my undertaking the voyage.” page: 34 But the patient’s health improved, and the foreign project was laid aside.

Priestley, therefore, resumed his theological studies, and in due time was ordained minister; and being a man of great though unconscious ability, wholly free from exaggeration of language, he has drawn a picture of the life led in Yorkshire by Presbyterian divines which must impress the modern reader with astonishment, and perhaps with admiration. No hermits of the desert, no monks of La Trappe, dwelt more serenely in an atmosphere apart. It was the time of Louis the Fifteenth in France and of George the Second in England, and the nephews and nieces of Charlotte Princess Palatine were still living, and her letters, whose name is legion, yet lay stored in the cabinets of her correspondents, full of inexpressible details discussed in most expressive language. It was the time when Jeanie Deans walked from Scotland to beg her sister’s life of Queen Caroline, and met Madge Wildfire in the way. It was the time when the polite world was composed of “men, women, and Herveys”; when Squire Pendarves was found dead in his bed in page: 35 Greek Street, Soho, leaving his young widow to be courted by John Wesley and wedded by Dr. Delany; when statesmen bribed, and young blades drank, and Sir Harbottle carried off Harriet Byron, whose shrieks brought Sir Charles Grandison to the rescue, sword in hand. It was the period when the Jacobite Rebellion flamed up and expired, when the Young Pretender marched to Derby, and the heads of the decapitated lords were exposed on Temple Bar; tragedies, agonies, highway robberies,—Dick Turpin, Jack Sheppard, smugglers, the press gang;—Frederick Prince of Wales quarrelling in Leicester Square, Queen Caroline on her death‐bed telling her weeping little George “que l’un n’empêche pas l’autre,” Horace Walpole making the grand tour, Dean Swift dying in agonized misery. Merciful heavens! what an England, of which we possess the daily diary! We can see Hogarth at his easel, and Sir Joshua taking his first stiff portraits, and Garrick going on pilgrimage to Stratford, and the young king courting Hannah Lightfoot and marrying his little bride from Mecklenburg. Without too much verifying of dates, it is page: 36 certain that all this was happening before Dr. Priestley was thirty years of age, and that of none of it is there the faintest mention in the account he has drawn up of his own childhood, youth, and young manhood, though he was himself destined to be one of the principal illustrations of the Georgian era. For anything which appears to the contrary, he and his friends might have dwelt in some far serene planet, whose inhabitants were wholly given up to study and to prayer. The tutors and students of Warrington Academy bestowed their whole minds (and very good minds) on the classics, the mathematics and metaphysics, and most of all on the theological discussions upon freewill and necessity, on the exact attributes of the Logos, and the exact results of the Atonement. Keenly alive to the immortal interests of man, the actual world touched them not. Much must be allowed to the absence of newspapers, to the want of easy communication. The men of the North who did not live with their bottle lived with their book; but it does seem strange that forty years later, when writing or revising his own story, Priestley, become in a sense a man of the world, page: 37 should not recall of those exciting times a single letter; a single speech. Still stranger perhaps is it to note that though during his last years Europe still lay bleeding, he added no word on the great convulsion, nor upon the rise of Buonaparte; except in occasional notices in his private letters, he scarcely makes reference to the French Revolution.¹ It is impossible to doubt that all its details became gradually known to him, but it is the literal truth that his interests lay “otherwhere.” People now talk of true inwardness—such inwardness as Priestley’s was really a “recollectedness” of the most singular kind, and it largely accounts for the extraordinary personal influence he possessed. He impressed those about him as a being from another sphere; of this there are many traces. Yet his own life was really one of the first to be swept into the vortex. When Harry Priestley rushed into the great drawing‐room at Barr to tell the Galtons that the Bastille was down, it meant for the boy and his family flaming destruction and exile, and in his own case an early

¹ He received an invitation to stand as deputé for the Departement de l’Orne, which he refused.

page: 38 death. It is Marianne Galton, Mrs. Schimmelpennick, who tells the anecdote.

Returning to the thread of Priestley’s life story, it was in 1752 that he went as a pupil to the Academy at Daventry, where he remained for three years under a successor of Dr. Doddridge. The new student felt “that peculiar satisfaction with which young persons of generous minds usually go through a course of liberal study in the society of others engaged in the same pursuits, and free from the cares and anxieties which seldom fail to lay hold on them when they come out into the world.”

The endless discussions of these young persons need not be here analyzed, though they are most curious and interesting. They are accessible in print. In three years Priestley obtained a small appointment as minister at Needham Market, in Suffolk, and seems to have been pleased to get it. His congregation numbered about one hundred, and the salary did not even amount to the now classical forty pounds a year. The young man lived very meagrely. His rich aunt, Mrs. Keighley, had been displeased at his theological opinions, and she had taken a page: 39 deformed niece into her charge, who ultimately inherited all she had to bequeath. His aunt had always assured him that she would leave him independent of his profession, but he was “satisfied that she was no longer able to perform her promise,” and freely consented to the money being left to his deformed cousin. His aunt finally bequeathed him a silver tankard, and he remarks, “She has spared no expense in my education, and that was doing more for me than giving me an estate.”

In 1758 he left Needham, going to London by sea to save expense, and from thence to Nantwich, in Cheshire, where he had an offer from a congregation, and where he opened a school for about thirty boys, with a separate room for half a dozen young ladies. Priestley at all times gave his best mind to the teaching of girls, and shows by many incidental words that he held women in as high mental and moral estimation as men; and he does this quite simply, and with no idea of propounding a theory or combating a prejudice. The profits of the school now enabled him to buy a few books, and also some philosophical instruments, which he used page: 40 merely to instruct and amuse his boys. He tells us that he had no leisure to make any experiments till many years later. A portrait of him at this period of his life shows a slender, intelligent young minister in wig, gown, and bands. At Nantwich he learned to play the flute, and makes the odd observation that he would “recommend the knowledge and practice of music to all studious persons, and it will be better for them if, like myself, they should have no very fine ear or exquisite taste, as by this means they will be more easily pleased and be less apt to be offended when the performances they hear are but indifferent.”

In 1761 he moved to Warrington, where he succeeded the famous Dr. Aikin as “tutor in the learned languages” at the Academy. “But as I told the persons who brought me the invitation, I should have preferred the office of teaching the mathematics and natural philosophy, for which I had at that time a great predilection.” Here he remained six years, and in the second year became a married man, his wife being sister to one of his pupils, William Wilkinson, and daughter of a wealthy Welsh ironmaster. page: 41 This is how he writes about her many years later; there is no want of feeling in the simplicity of the style: our great‐grandparents did not wear their hearts upon their sleeves:—

“This proved a very suitable and happy connection, my wife being a woman of an excellent understanding much improved by reading, of great fortitude and strength of mind, and of a temper in the highest degree affectionate and generous, feeling strongly for others and little for herself. Also excelling in everything relating to household affairs, she entirely relieved me of all concern of that kind, which allowed me to give all my time to the prosecution of my studies.”

It is a tradition in the family that Mrs. Priestley once sent her famous husband to market with a large basket, and that he so acquitted himself that she never sent him again! She was extremely intelligent and original, and her letters are much brighter than the Doctor’s. Lord Shelburne found her one morning sitting on the top of a pair of steps, clad in a great apron, and vigorously pasting on a new well‐paper. She received him with calm composure! There page: 42 is a good portrait of her as an elderly lady in a cap, curving her hand round her ear to assist her hearing. She must have herself insisted upon being painted in this unusual attitude. She certainly looks like a person of excellent understanding whose mind had been much improved by reading.

In 1767 Priestley received an invitation to take charge of the congregation of Mill Hill Chapel at Leeds, and in September he moved thither, and remained six years. In 1772 he made his first publication on the subject of air. It was a small pamphlet on the method of impregnating water with fixed air. It was immediately translated into French, and excited a great degree of attention to the subject, and in the following year he published his first paper of experiments “in a large article of the Philosophical Transactions,” and was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Society. By the kindness of Mr. Charles Aikin, I am enabled to give a letter written by Priestley to Miss Aikin (afterwards Mrs. Barbauld), which refers to similar experiments. The letter has no postmark, and is undated, but the reference to a second publication by Miss Aikin, and the page: 43 allusion to Calne, fixes the date as the latter end of 1773.

“DEAR MISS AIKIN,—You have made me perfectly easy and happy by your answer to my letter, the occasion of which I shall no more think of. Your name was not to the paper.

“Though I have published so much, I really am not able to give you any advice about your bargain with Mr. Johnson; and can only recommend my own practice, which is to leave it to himself, and to wait the sale of the work, which I hope will be such as to enable him to make you a handsome recompense.

“I am sorry for Mr. Walker and the Academy, but, after the complaints he has so very publickly made, it is much the most advisable for him to leave you; and though it may not be an easy matter to supply his place so well with respect to his ability, I hope you may be more happy upon the whole with another. I wish you may get some person of reputation, because the Academy will otherwise dwindle into a common school, and of that kind it will never be a first rate or a good one.

“You say your brother is over heads and ears page: 44 in chymistry; so am I. Tell him I have just hit upon a process by which I convert pure water into an Alkaline liquor, the smell of which is beyond comparison stronger than anything that has yet been made of the kind. I can also give him a bit of spunge at which he could not bear to smell. I also make spirit of salt much stronger than any that he has seen of pure water. I first produce the Alkaline and acid airs or vapours, and with them impregnate the water to saturation. The former I get immediately from Sal Ammoniac, and the latter from common salt. At present I do little besides attending to my experiments, in which I have been of late peculiarly successful; yesterday I made some remarkable experiments on the mixture of ether with different kinds of air.

“Tell your father, however, that at intervals I (or rather Mrs. Priestley) am transcribing the third volume of the Institutes, in order to be printed the next winter, and that I hope he will soon see an essay of mine on the subject of giving the Eucharist to children. Mr. Walker makes himself very merry with my conceit, as he page: 45 calls it, but I am as little moved by the jokes of my friends as the malice of my enemies.

“I expect much pleasure from your new publication, and Mr. Johnson informs me that it is upon the road to Calne.

“With my most respectful compliments, I need not say to whom I am

“Dear Miss Aikin,

“Yours sincerely,


In that year Miss Aikin published two volumes, one of verse and one of prose (the first of which went immediately through four editions); and in that year Priestley went to Calne, in, Wiltshire, near Lord Shelburne’s seat of Bowood. He seems to have taken a house in the village for Mrs. Priestley and the children, but to have been constantly occupied in the great House, where he says that his office was “nominally that of librarian,” but that he had “little employment as such.” In the second year he made with Lord Shelburne a considerable tour, visiting Flanders, Holland, and Germany, as far as Strasburg, returning by Paris, where page: 46 a most interesting month was spent in the brilliant, intellectual society of the Encyclopedists. With characteristic attention to the one thing he thought important, Priestley makes the only observation recorded upon the state of France; remarking, “’As I was sufficiently apprised of the fact, I did not wonder, as I otherwise should have done, to find all the philosophical persons to whom I was introduced in Paris unbelievers in Christianity, and even professed Atheists. As I chose on all occasions to appear as a Christian, I was told by some of them that I was the only person they had ever met with, of whose understanding they had any opinion, who professed to believe Christianity. This was also the case with a great part of the company I saw at Lord Shelburne’s.”

It is said that a manuscript exists in the Town Library of Aix, in Provence, giving some particulars of Priestley in Paris, but I made a fruitless search for it on the only occasion of remaining a day in that town.

For some years, while at Leeds, he had managed to spend a month every year in London, and his winters were now passed in the page: 47 metropolis at Lansdowne House. His noteworthy experiments in the beer vats of a brewery at Leeds had made him known to the members of the Royal Society, he had become intimately acquainted with Benjamin Franklin, and a proposition had even been made that he should accompany Captain Cook in the voyage undertaken in 1772. He spent several years in Lord Shelburne’s house, and appears to have moved from thence to Birmingham. But when he had been some years settled in that town, Lord Shelburne “sent an especial messenger and common friend to engage me again in his service,” but Dr. Priestley declined the offer.

Into the experimental details of that fruitful period of five and twenty years after his departure from Warrington it is needless to enter. It is open to all who care to read about it. His letters and those of his scientific friends are touched by an imaginative light of intellectual dawn. Franklin and Wedgwood, James Watt and the elder Darwin, felt a breeze as from a mountain‐top. Not for them was Nature pessimistic in her conclusions. They did not page: 48 anticipate that a perfected telescope would only serve to bring us within range of the ravening tyrants of the Star! They were haunted by no visions of a dying sun and a cooling earth. Most of them saw God in clouds and heard Him in the wind; and even those who were touched by intellectual atheism conceived of Nature as a boundless realm of progressive wealth, conducive to the use and happiness of man.

Priestley was made Doctor of Laws by the University of Edinburgh, and a member of the Royal Society by the agency of Franklin. He tells us this in four lines, and goes on to write six close pages on Scriptural matters as discussed by his colleagues, the tutors and ministers of Warrington. During several years he and his wife had to practise the most laborious economy in order to feed and educate their four children. It would be curious to learn what were the necessaries and what the luxuries of life in Yorkshire a hundred and twenty‐five years ago. What did meat cost, and was it eaten every day? What was the price of textile fabrics, and what was paid in wages? All who know the details of a minister’s house even in page: 49 the first half of this century can keenly realize how very hard it was to have everything sacked, torn, and burnt in the Birmingham Riots.

When these occurred Priestley had been settled eleven years in the town as minister, and very happy years they had proved. His house, Fair Hill, was really in the country, but was then within an easy walk of the central streets. Dotted about were the wealthy abodes of prosperous merchants and manufacturers, and here he found “good workmen” to make his instruments, and “the society of persons eminent for their knowledge of chemistry.” Here he met the Lunar Society, which dined together every month at the full of the moon, and numbered James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, and Mr. Galton among its members. All this happy activity, this peaceful and refined centre of human life, was swept away in four cruel days, and never reconstituted.

In the first fortnight of July, 1791, a number of Birmingham gentlemen had planned to dine together at an hotel, to commemorate the destruction of the Bastille two years previously. At that time the coming horrors of the Revolution page: 50 were undreamt of. The French royal family were at the Tuileries, and not a single head had as yet fallen beneath the guillotine. The mild men who wished to dine together in the full light of a blazing afternoon in July had no wish for anything but the highest good of their kind, and Dr. Priestley, meeting Mr. Berrington, the well‐known Catholic priest, at tea on Wednesday the 6th, asked him and their host, Mr. William Hutton, to join the banquet. But Mr. Berrington was more acute than the Doctor, and replied, “No; we Catholics stand better with Government than you Dissenters, and we will not make common cause with you.” On Monday the 11th the dinner was advertised in a local newspaper, and—sinister portent—immediately under that advertisement was “another, informing the public that the names of the gentlemen who should dine at the hotel on Thursday would be published, price one halfpenny. This seemed a signal for mischief, but mischief was unknown in Birmingham, and no one regarded it.” So wrote Miss Catherine Hutton in a letter dated the following week. She adds that her brother Thomas told her on Tuesday the 12th page: 51 that “a riot was expected on Thursday, but so little was I interested by the intelligence that it left no impression on my mind. The word ‘riot,’ since so dreadful, contained no other idea than that of verbal abuse.”

The dinner took place. A mob assembled and broke the windows, hissing and groaning, but the Liberal gentlemen did not apparently think much of this, and several of them went and took tea at a friend’s house in town. This was literally noted as occurring at five o’clock, and it happens that their conversation has been recorded in a private letter, since privately printed. Dr. Priestley, however, was not with them at dinner or at tea. He had been persuaded by a wary friend to stay away. The lively, bright girl, Miss Mary R., who wrote the most vivid of all the accounts which have come down to us, went that afternoon to Fair Hill, and found Mrs. Priestley preparing to walk into Birmingham. To the rumours of window‐breaking, told her by her young friend, she replied with characteristic decision, “Nonsense, my dear,” or words to that effect. The two set out together and walked back into the town, the distance of a mile, where page: 52 they found the gentlemen still at tea. They were all friends, and mostly relatives by blood or marriage—the older Birmingham families forming a sort of local mercantile aristocracy, full of culture and public spirit. After the ladies had returned each to their homes, Miss Mary R. went to look at a new conservatory which her father had just built for his daughters. It was quite empty, but the gardener had prepared the mould, and had purchased a number of plants which the young people meant to set early the next morning.

The flowers were never planted. The conservatory remains as “the baseless fabric of a vision.” When the twilight darkened, the young ladies stood upon their father’s lawn watching the double glow where the Old and New Meeting Houses were in flames. Then Mr. Samuel Ryland, whose daughter was engaged to marry Joseph Priestley the younger, got “a chaise” and hurried off to Fair Hill. He had been warned by “a very Liberal Churchman, Mr. Vale,” who had heard mischief intended, and begged him to “take Dr. Priestley away, as he was fearful his life was in danger.” Mr. Ryland page: 53 found the Doctor, who had not been into Birmingham at all, “playing at backgammon with his wife, and when informed his meeting house was on fire could scarcely believe it, and refused to leave home.” Probably Mrs. Priestley also said she would not go, abandoning her pleasant, orderly rooms, her hundred and one simple treasures, her china, her linen, her books, the house where her children had grown up. However, “he and Mrs. Priestley were persuaded to get into the carriage” and leave the house to his servants and a few young men who had arrived meanwhile with the intelligence of the riot. These young men, members of the congregation, had begged hard to be allowed to defend Fair Hill. But Dr. Priestley absolutely forbade them to strike a blow. He told them that a minister of the gospel must not risk bloodshed even in lawful defence of his worldly goods, and he passed out of the house, leaving behind him his library, his costly and beautiful philosophical instruments, his treasured manuscripts, the notes of five and twenty years of scientific labour.

When the chaise with Dr. and Mrs. Priestley had relied away, the servants extinguished every page: 54 fire, the blinds were drawn down, and in the darkened rooms began that vigil by Mr. Hill which his one surviving son, Mr. Frederick Hill, has lately recounted in such moving terms. For half an hour the young man watched and waited; then came the tramp of the mob. The rest is matter of oft‐repeated history. The ringleaders procured a light from the nearest public‐house and set fire to the laboratory and the library. Of all the property in that dwelling an official inventory was afterwards compiled, a copy of which was made for Mr. Timmins, the well‐known local historian and antiquary, a hundred years later. The original document is a folio book of sixty‐five pages, in which the most minute details are given, and the value of each entry given by sworn valuers, surveyors for the building, auctioneers for the furniture, and booksellers for the books. All these are very curious and interesting as records of the interior of a substantial house one hundred years ago, and valuable as a register of the prices of household furniture. It has been partially reproduced in Dr. Carrington Bolton’s interesting volume of Priestley’s scientific correspondence, page: 55 privately printed in New York. In addition to the splendid apparatus given to the Doctor partly by Lord Shelburne, partly by Wedgwood and other friends, are noted a large silver medallion of Sir Isaac Newton, and another in Wedgwood ware, two “five‐guinea notes” in pocket books, a Magellan timepiece, three black Wedgwood inkstands, a large mahogany lathe, sixty pounds’ worth of lenses, and other optical instruments, including a large camera obscura. Of “chemical substances” there were six or seven hundred, liquid and solid, of which no account can be given, many of them the results of expensive processes.

About three years later a similar inventory was taken of the apparatus of the French chemist, Lavoisier, guillotined in May, 1794.

Fair Hill remained a mere shell, of which small pictures were made and published. Of the actual burning a strange record exists. An artist of the name of Exted, a “pupil of Hogarth,” made an elaborate painting in oils, sketched upon the spot. “This picture represents the mob, with the banner inscribed ‘Church and King,’ in the very act of destroy‐ page: 56 ing destroying Dr. Priestley’s house; chairs, globes, bottles, apparatus, a wig, slippers, window‐frames, books and pamphlets, a telescope, a bed‐post, lying on the ground or falling from a window. The more sober part of the rioters, both in the house and in the garden, in the most various attitudes, the drunken one stretched out at length. Several of the faces are portraits; among them the town‐crier with his public bell, a demon who attended on the occasion to incite the mob.” This description is from a private letter. It is my impression that the secret history of the Birmingham Riots has never been unearthed, and now never will be known. Political passion has subsided; Churchmen and Dissenters have changed their lines of thought; the New Meeting House has become a Roman Catholic chapel, and Dr. Priestley’s congregation meets in a fine building called the Church of the Messiah, and a son of Sarah S. became the much‐respected Mayor and most prominent citizen of the metropolis of the Midlands.

Of the destruction of many other houses, far wealthier than that of Priestley’s, sad stories remain, notably the ruin of William Hutton’s page: 57 two dwellings; while Dr. Priestley’s journey to London, his sojourn at Hackney, and final emigration to America are matters of history. But, on examining the documents, some unpublished, others printed in old‐fashioned magazines, from whence they have never emerged, I am deeply impressed with the struggle it cost him to cross the Atlantic, and the changed life to which he submitted. The younger men of the congregation, including his own sons, believed in the possibility of a successful settlement across the ocean. But, as happened in the case of Winthrop, a hundred and sixty years earlier, the hand of death lay heavy on the exiles. The first to go was Henry Priestley, a delicate young man brought up for a learned profession. He flung himself into a farmer’s life, caught ague, then fever, from exposure in the unwonted climate, and died in 1795. His valiant mother survived him just nine months. The New House, now known as the Priestley House, and kept up by Government, was partly planned by her, the notable housewife who for thirty‐four years had spared her husband every practical care. She did not page: 58 live to inhabit it. Priestley’s habitual submission carried him over a time of deep depression, which he pathetically tries in his letters to conceal. Over them, though some of them have been printed from a collection at Warrington, I draw a veil. Under the deep self‐control and reserve of his Presbyterian nurture was hidden a soul sensitively alive to affection, and an intellect instinct with genius. Among men he had one dear friend, with whom he continued to correspond. The following letter, hitherto unpublished, ends with sad, suppressed yearning. It reached its destination, travelling from the backwoods of Pennsylvania to the Strand, and lies before me now:—

“Northumberland, April 2, 1802.

“To the Rev. W. Lindsey,

“Essex Street, London.

“DEAR FRIEND,—I have at length, with great satisfaction, received a box of books from Mr. Johnson, though by no means all that I wrote for long ago. In it I was disappointed not to find either Mr. Belsham’s ‘Lectures,’ or his (brother’s) fifth and sixth volumes. But my page: 59 son, being at Philadelphia when the box arrived, purchased those books for me. The history, being more immediately interesting, I read first, and also the ‘Answer to Mr. Marsh,’ and I admire them as much as, from your account of them, I expected to do. I am, however, astonished at the freedom with which he writes. Nothing of the kind would have passed unnoticed here during Mr. Adams’ administration. I long to see another volume, which I imagine will bring the history down to the general peace. I see references to his history in quarto. Is this materially different from that in octavo?

“I have made some progress in reading Mr. Belsham’s ‘Lectures,’ and admire their clearness and comprehensiveness. That any work of this kind should be inviting to the generality of readers cannot be expected, especially as there is nothing of controversy to stimulate. It will, however, I doubt not, be long a standard work on the subject.

“Please to call on Mr. Philips, and thank him in my name for the many curious and Valuable articles which he has sent me in this parcel.

page: 60

“I sent Mr. Nicholson two articles for his Journal, with a P.S. to one of them in a letter to you. Has he received them? I hope Mr. Morgan has received the letter I wrote him. Dr. Woodhouse, Professor of Chemistry here, is going to make a tour of part of Europe. I gave him a letter of introduction to you, and sent after him, directed to you, one to Sir Joseph Banks, who, I hope, will receive him with civility.

“Warned by the impaired state of my health (though I am not without hopes of a restoration) that what I do I must. do quickly, I have begun to print the ‘Continuation of my Church History.’ We have printed two sheets, and I am promised three in a week. Four volumes will complete the whole. As I have hardly any other source of expense, I hope that, if Mr. Wilkinson continues his allowance, I shall be able to finish this with little or no assistance, but if I receive any it will be welcome. No person has been more liberal in his promises to aid me in works of this kind than Mr. Russell, but his affairs have been in such a state that he has not been able. I think to write to him on page: 61 the subject. He shall have copies for all that he may advance.

“I have just received a very interesting letter from Mr. J. Stone, giving me an account of the state of religion in France and Germany, where Unitarianism has already gained great ground, and has been the means of putting a stop to the spread of infidelity. He was intimate with Mr. de la Harpe, the tutor of the Emperor Alexander of Russia, and from his letters I have formed great expectations from him. He is the friend of liberty, and in this promises to be a truly patriot prince. Mr. Stone urges me much to go to Paris. But any removal is now out of the question. I must be thinking of my last, and I am thankful that I see no great cause to be anxious about it. I have lived in good health to the usual term of human life, and hope I have done some good in it, though I am sensible I might have done more. I am particularly thankful that you have been so long preserved to me and to the world. What could I have done without you? and this in many respects. I can only wish that we may derive the same advantage from our intercourse in page: 62 another state, and the nearer I approach to it the more I think of it. How dark and gloomy must be the prospects of unbelievers in the same circumstances!

“We have had an uncommonly mild winter, such as no person here remembers, and the papers say that you have had a severe one, and that the clearness of provision continues. On the whole, I think a situation in this country more truly eligible than in any other country in the world. We have peace and plenty, and everything in a state of unexampled improvement. I may add that this very place appears to me to be on the whole more eligible than any other that I have seen or heard of.

“Yours and Mrs. Lindsey’s most affectionately,


Priestley survived his wife’s death eight years, and found a measure of restored happiness in the children of his eldest son. No murmur ever crossed his lips. He worked on to the very last, correcting proofs of his “Notes on Isaiah” two days before he died, “and, having examined the Greek and Hebrew quotations, and finding them page: 63 right, he said he was satisfied we should finish the work very well.” On the morning of his death, February 6, 1804, he dictated an alteration in a pamphlet; his son read it over to him, and he said, “That is right, and I have now done.” He had previously offered grateful thanks to the Almighty for giving him a painless death among his children; and putting his hand before his face, so that those watching him could not tell the exact moment, he passed away in deep and conscious communion with his God.