Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

equal to at least £100,000 of the present value of money. This bitter lesson kept Birmingham quiet during the rest of the Civil War, though the sympathies of the people with the Parliamentarians were unabated. In 1665 Birmingham suffered heavy losses by the plague, great numbers of dead being buried in the Pest Field, at Ladywood, then a lonely place far outside the town, but long since thickly covered with buildings. In 1688 the Revolution provoked a temporary outbreak of Protestant feeling. James II. had given timber from the royal forest of Needwood, near Burton, to build a Roman Catholic chapel and convent in a place still called Mass-house Lane. This edifice the mob promptly destroyed when James gave place to William and Mary. Rather more than a century of quiet prosperity ensued, and then occurred the serious and most lamentable outbreak of popular fury known as the Church and King riots of 1791. For some years there had been much political activity in Birmingham, the dissenters, particularly the Unitarians, being desirous of relief from the political and religious disabilities under which they laboured. The leader in these movements was the famous Dr Priestley, who kept up an active controversy with the local clergy and others, and thus drew upon himself and his co-religionists the hatred of the more violent members of the Church and Tory party. The smouldering fire broke out on the occasion of the French Revolution. On the 14th of July a dinner of Birmingham Liberals was held at the Royal hotel to celebrate the destruction of the Bastille. This was the signal of a popular outbreak. A Church and King mob, encouraged and organized by leaders of better station, who were too cowardly to show themselves, began an attack upon the Unitarians. Priestley was not present at the dinner, but his house at Fair Hill, Sparkbrook, was one of the first to be sacked and burnt—his library and laboratory, with all his manuscripts, the records of lifelong scientific and philosophical inquiries, perishing in the flames. The house and library of Hutton the historian were also destroyed. The Unitarian chapel was burnt, and several houses belonging to members of the sect were sacked and burnt. The riot continued until a strong body of troops was marched into the town, but before their arrival damage to the amount of more than £60,000 had been done. Some of the rioters perished in the burning buildings, in the cellars of which they drank themselves into stupefaction. Others were tried and imprisoned, and four of the prisoners were hanged. The persecuted Unitarians recovered a small part of their losses from the county; but Priestley himself, owing in a great measure to the unworthy prejudice against him, was forced to remove to the United States of America, where he spent the rest of his life. A late atonement was made by the town to his memory in 1873, by the erection of a statue in his honour in front of the town hall and the foundation of a Priestley scholarship at the Midland Institute.

As if ashamed of the excesses of 1791, Birmingham thenceforth became, with one or two exceptions, a peaceful town. In the dismal period from 1817 to 1819, when the manufacturing districts were heavily distressed and were disturbed by riots, Birmingham remained quiet. Even when some of the inhabitants were tried and punished for demanding parliamentary representation, and for electing Sir Charles Wolseley as their delegate, there was no demonstration of violence—the wise counsels of the leaders inducing orderly submission to the law. The same prudent course was observed when in the Reform agitation of 1831-1832 the Political Union was formed, under the leadership of Thomas Attwood, to promote the passing of the Reform Bill. Almost the whole town, and great part of the surrounding district, joined in this agitation; vast meetings were held on Newhall Hill; there was much talk of marching upon London 100,000 strong; but, owing to the firmness and statesmanship of Attwood and his associates, there was no rioting or any sign of violence. Ultimately the Political Union succeeded in its object, and Birmingham helped to secure for the nation the enfranchisement of the middle classes and other political reforms. One exception to the tranquillity of the town has to be recorded—the occurrence of riots in 1839, during the Chartist agitation. Chartism took a strong hold in Birmingham, and, under the influence of Feargus O’Connor and some of his associates, nightly meetings of a threatening character were held in the Bull Ring. The magistrates resolved to put these down, and having obtained the help of a detachment of the metropolitan police—the town then having no local police force—a meeting was dispersed, and a riot ensued, which resulted in injury to several persons and required military force to suppress it. This happened on the 4th of July. On the 15th of the same month another meeting took place, and the mob, strongly armed and numbering many thousands, set fire to several houses in the Bull Ring, some of which were burned to the ground and others were greatly damaged. The military again interfered, and order was restored, several of the ringleaders being afterwards tried and imprisoned for their share in the disturbance. There was another riot in 1867, caused by the ferocious attacks of a lecturer named Murphy upon the Roman Catholics, which led to the sacking of a street chiefly inhabited by Irishmen; but the incident was comparatively trivial and further disorders were prevented by the prompt action of the authorities.

See W. Hutton, History of Birmingham (2nd ed., Birm., 1783); J. A. Langford, A Century of Birmingham Life, 1741-1841 (Birm., 1868), and Modern Birmingham and its Institutions, 1841-1871 (Birm., 1873); J. T. Bunce, History of the Corporation of Birmingham (Birm., 1885).

BIRNEY, JAMES GILLESPIE (1792-1857), American reformer, leader of the conservative abolitionists in the United States from about 1835 to 1845, was born in Danville, Kentucky, of a family of wealth and influence, on the 4th of February 1792. He graduated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1810. In 1814, after a course of legal study, he began the practice of the law at Danville. He entered immediately, as a Democrat, into Kentucky politics, and political ambition caused his removal in 1818 to northern Alabama, near Huntsville. There was at that time in the south-west much anti-slavery sentiment. Birney’s father was among those who advocated a “free state” constitution for Kentucky, and the home environment of the boy had thus fostered a questioning attitude towards slavery, though later he was himself a slave-holder. In the general assembly of Kentucky in 1816, and in that of Alabama in 1819, he opposed inter-state rendition of fugitive slaves and championed liberal slave-laws. His career as a lawyer in Alabama was exceptionally brilliant; but his political career was abruptly wrecked by his opposition in 1819 to Andrew Jackson, whose friends controlled the state. His tariff and anti-slavery views, moreover, carried him more and more away from the Democratic party and toward the Whigs.

About 1826 he began to show an active interest in the American Colonization Society, and in 1832-1833 served as its agent in the south-west. In 1833 he returned to Danville, and devoted himself wholly to the anti-slavery cause. He freed his own slaves in 1834. Convinced that gradual emancipation would merely stimulate the inter-state slave trade, and that the dangers of a mixed labour system were greater than those of emancipation in mass, he formally repudiated colonization in 1834; moreover, gradualism had become for him an unjustifiable compromise in a matter of religion and justice. At this time also he abandoned the Whig party. He delivered anti-slavery addresses in the North, accepted the vice-presidency of the American Anti-Slavery Society and announced his intention to establish an anti-slavery journal at Danville (1835). For this he was ostracized from Kentucky society; his anti-slavery journals were withheld in the mails; he could not secure a public hall or a printer. In these circumstances, he removed to Cincinnati, Ohio, and there, in January 1836, founded the Philanthropist, which, in spite of rancorous opposition, became of great influence in the north-west. Birney soon relinquished its active control in order to serve the Anti-Slavery Society as secretary and as a lecturer. He favoured immediatism, but he differed sharply from the Garrisonian abolitionists, who abhorred the federal Constitution and favoured secession. He always wrote, spoke and laboured for the permanent safety of the Union. The assaults of the South in defence of slavery upon free speech, free press, the right of petition and trial by jury, he pronounced