When British Scientists Feared Death from the Mob

Watt, Priestley and Withering

Three of the Lunar Society members who feared they would be attacked: James Watt, Joseph Priestley, and William Withering from left to right.

1789 was the year of the French Revolution.

Dr. Joseph Priestley wholeheartedly approved of the Revolution.

Priestley had discovered oxygen; invented fizzy, carbonated water; and had written what became the standard textbook on electricity for several decades.

Now he abandoned chemistry in favor of promoting the French Revolutionary slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity. He openly celebrated the abolition of the French Monarchy.

For his Revolutionary sympathies, he was criticized in the British Parliament. Meanwhile, the French Revolutionaries acknowledged their brother on the other side of the English Channel, and awarded him French citizenship.

To celebrate the second anniversary of the Revolution, Priestley and other sympathizers planned a dinner in a hotel in Birmingham, England, where Priestley lived.

The French Revolution was popular at the time with a number of intellectuals in Britain. The infamous Reign of Terror, in which French Revolutionaries executed tens of thousands of people without trial still lay two years in the future.

Although popular with a minority of people, the general feeling in Britain in 1791 was hostile to the Revolution.

Priestley was warned that there might be violence at the dinner, so he did not attend it.

There was violence at the dinner, which spread to various locations, including Priestley’s home, which was attacked by a mob and burned to the ground, including his laboratory. Fortunately, Priestley had the good sense to have made himself scarce, and was not at the house to face the mob.

Priestley's House Torched by the Mob

Joseph Priestley’s house burning after being attacked by a mob.

Scientists, or as they were then called, Philosophers, became a particular target of the anti-revolutionary mob, whether the scientists supported the Revolution or not!

“No philosophers! Church and King forever!” was a favorite chant. The city of Birmingham was gripped by anarchy and fear.

With Priestley’s house destroyed, the mob looked for other scientists to attack.

James Watt, inventor, scientist, and father of the industrial revolution, and his business partner, Matthew Boulton feared they would be targeted. They fortified their engine factories and armed their workforce to defend the buildings from the mob. Their factories were not attacked, probably because most of the rioters were operating in other city neighborhoods.

Particular targets for the mob were members of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, who happily called themselves The Lunatics. The Lunar Society was made up of scientists, intellectuals and businessmen including James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, James Keir, William Withering, and Joseph Priestley.

Joseph Priestley

The popular press portrayed Joseph Priestley unfavorably.

William Withering’s home was attacked.

Withering was a chemist and physician, who discovered the drug digitalis. Fortunately, the first port of call for the rioters who entered his house was his wine cellars.

While the mob fortified themselves with liquor, soldiers from the Fifteenth Light Dragoons arrived in the area. The mob got wind of the presence of the troops, and left the scene as quickly as their unsteady feet would carry them.

Other scientists in Birmingham, fearing for their lives, either fled from the city or lay low, hoping the rioting would be contained before the mob reached them or their houses or laboratories.

With riots continuing, King George III (Yes, he of The Madness of King George fame) finally gave into demands that troops should be sent to Birmingham to end the disorder. He is reported to have said: “I feel pleased that Priestley is the sufferer for the doctrines he and his party have instilled, and that the people see them in their true light.”

The riots had lasted four days.

Despite the sympathy of King George and other senior politicians for their actions, several rioters were hanged.

Priestley had the good sense not to return to Birmingham, but stayed in London, which was safer, although still uncomfortable. He and his family emigrated from London to the United States in 1794.


30 Brilliant Scientist Quotes


Fantastically quotable scientists on science:

Georg Christoph LichtenbergIt is strange that only extraordinary men make the discoveries, which later appear so easy and simple.

Georg C. Lichtenberg, 1742 to 1799
PhilolausActually, everything that can be known has a Number; for it is impossible to grasp anything with the mind or to recognize it without this.

Philolaus, c. 470 – c. 385 BC
Scientist and Philosopher
paul erdosGod created two acts of folly. First, He created the Universe in a Big Bang. Second, He was negligent enough to leave behind evidence for this act, in the form of microwave radiation.

Paul Erdős, 1913 to 1996
william ramsayProgress is made by trial and failure; the failures are generally a hundred times more numerous than the successes ; yet they are usually left unchronicled.

William Ramsay, 1852 to 1916
victor schefferAlthough Nature needs thousands or millions of years to create a new species, man needs only a few dozen years to destroy one.

Victor Scheffer, 1906 to 2011
ernest rutherfordIf your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.

Ernest Rutherford, 1871 to 1937
aristotleBy ‘life,’ we mean a thing that can nourish itself and grow and decay.

Aristotle, 384 BC to 322 BC
Scientist, Philosopher
george waldA physicist is an atom’s way of knowing about atoms.

George Wald, 1906 to 1997
100-man-grayDid the genome of our cave-dwelling predecessors contain a set or sets of genes which enable modern man to compose music of infinite complexity and write novels with profound meaning? …It looks as though the early Homo was already provided with the intellectual potential which was in great excess of what was needed to cope with the environment of his time.”

Susumu Ohno, 1928 to 2000
max planckAn experiment is a question which science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature’s answer.

Max Planck, 1858 to 1947
Theoretical Physicist
justus von liebigA fact acquires its true and full value only through the idea which is developed from it.

Justus von Liebig, 1803 to 1873
john wheelerThere is no law except the law that there is no law.

John Archibald Wheeler, 1911 to 2008
Theoretical Physicist
thomas chrowder chamberlinFalsity in intellectual action is intellectual immorality.

Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin, 1843 to 1928
100-fred-hoyleOutstanding examples of genius – a Mozart, a Shakespeare, or a Carl Friedrich Gauss – are markers on the path along which our species appears destined to tread.

Fred Hoyle, 1915 to 2001
steven weinbergIt does not help that some politicians and journalists assume the public is interested only in those aspects of science that promise immediate practical applications to technology or medicine.

Steven Weinberg , 1933 to present
Theoretical Physicist
john haldaneScience is vastly more stimulating to the imagination than the classics.

J. B. S. Haldane, 1892 to 1964
carl saganValid criticism does you a favor.

Carl Sagan, 1934 to 1996
jw mellorTrial by combat of wits in disputations has no attraction for the seeker after truth; to him, the appeal to experiment is the last and only test of the merit of an opinion, conjecture, or hypotheses.

Joseph Mellor, 1869 to 1938
arthur eddingtonWhat is possible in the Cavendish Laboratory may not be too difficult in the sun.

Sir Arthur Eddington, 1882 to 1944
Astronomer, Physicist, Mathematician
marie curieLife is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves.

Marie Curie, 1867 to 1934
Chemist, Physicist
Subrahmanyan ChandrasekharThe black holes of nature are the most perfect macroscopic objects there are in the universe: the only elements in their construction are our concepts of space and time.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, 1910 to 1995
thomas thomsonChemistry, unlike other sciences, sprang originally from delusions and superstitions, and was at its commencement exactly on a par with magic and astrology.

Thomas Thomson, 1773 to 1852
robert kirshnerUnderstanding the history of matter and searching for its most interesting forms, such as galaxies, stars, planets and life, seems a suitable use for our intelligence.

Robert Kirshner, 1949 to present
stephen jay gouldWe are storytelling animals, and cannot bear to acknowledge the ordinariness of our daily lives.

Stephen Jay Gould, 1941 to 2002
thomas goldThings are as they are because they were as they were.

Thomas Gold, 1920 to present
Paul DiracI do not refer to the mathematical difficulties, which eventually are always trivial, but rather to the conceptual difficulties.

Paul Dirac, 1902 to 1984
Theoretical Physicist
arthur eddingtonI believe there are 15 747 724 136 275 002 577 605 653 961 181 555 468 044 717 914 527 116 709 366 231 425 076 185 631 031 296 protons in the universe and the same number of electrons.

Sir Arthur Eddington, 1882 to 1944
Astronomer, Physicist, Mathematician
william ramsayArchimedes’ finding that the crown was of gold was a discovery; but he invented the method of determining the density of solids. Indeed, discoverers must generally be inventors; though inventors are not necessarily discoverers.

William Ramsay, 1852 to 1916
George Johnstone StoneyA theory is a supposition which we hope to be true, a hypothesis is a supposition which we expect to be useful; fictions belong to the realm of art; if made to intrude elsewhere, they become either make-believes or mistakes.

George Johnstone Stoney, 1826 to 1911
manScience is the acceptance of what works and the rejection of what does not. That needs more courage than we might think.

Jacob Bronowski, 1908 to 1974
Mathematician, Biologist