The wheel of history

The controversial Joseph Priestley

In 1804, Yorkshireman JOSEPH PRIESTLEY died in Northumberland… Pennsylvania. Of moving to the US, he wrote, “it is now only that I can say I see nothing to fear from the hand of power, the government under which I live being for the first time truly favourable to me.” An unsurprising comment given that he had been hounded out of Britain, his home in Birmingham having been torched by a mob.

Priestley is probably best known for inventing fizzy water. In fact, Schweppes (who took his method and commercialised it) still refer to him as ‘the father of our industry’. However, there is more to Priestley than gin and tonics.

As a scientist, he discovered oxygen. As a political commentator, he was an outspoken supporter of the revolution in France. As a Unitarian minister he rejected some of the fundamental tenets of the Church, including Christ’s divinity and his virgin birth. He believed knowledge and reason would liberate humanity and lead it to the promised land.

As such, he upset those at the top and the bottom of society. The people at the top didn’t like having their power threatened. Those at the bottom didn’t like the perceived attack on their already precarious way of life. In modern ‘culture wars’ parlance, he would be described as ‘anti-British’, a ‘radical lefty’ and dismissed as an ‘elitist intellectual’.

The situation came to a head in 1791 when a mob rampaged across Birmingham, hunting down Priestley and his other Lunar Society friends. Having fled to Hackney, Priestley ultimately emigrated to America where free-thinkers and non-conformists were welcomed. There he became friends with the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who at the time of Priestley’s death was serving as the third President of the United States.

Two centuries later, authoritarian politicians and a partisan media incited another mob to attack the US Capitol. Two months earlier, 68% of Northumberland County voted to re-elect Donald Trump… Tim Stimpson

Tim’s play ‘Gunpower Joe’ can be seen as part of Power of Invention at Soho House in Handsworth on the 30th, 31st July and 7th August, at 12, 3 & 6pm each day.

The site-specific production is a collaboration with Birmingham Museums Trust and is funded by Arts Council England and the Sir Barry Jackson Trust.


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