Finding Number (Click this to view full catalogue structure)JP
TitleJoseph Priestley Letters
Extent17 items
DescriptionLetters written by Joseph Priestley to various correspondents. The letters relate to Priestley's his scientific experiments and to theological matters.
ArrangementThe letters are arranged numerically according to the order in which they have been received.
Access ConditionsAccess to all registered readers
Finding AidsA catalogue of this collection is available on the online archive catalogue. Click on the Finding Number to display the summary contents list of the catalogue and to view the full catalogue. A paper copy of this catalogue is also available for consultation at Special Collections.
Access StatusOpen
Physical DescriptionLetters on paper bound in one volume.
Creator NamePriestley, Joseph (1733-1804) Scientist
Administrative HistoryJoseph Priestley, 1733-1804, theologian and natural philosopher, was born on 13 March 1733 at Birstall Fieldhead, West Riding of Yorkshire. Priestley was a major figure of the British Enlightenment and a notable polymath, and his publications number, in first editions, more than 150 books, pamphlets, and papers in journals. An early nineteenth-century edition of his collected works, minus the science, filled twenty-six octavo volumes and the science would have added at least five more. Remembered today primarily for his isolation and identification of seven gases, including oxygen, in his own day he was known also as a vigorous advocate of unitarianism and of liberal reform of government, education, and theology.
As a dissenter he was not allowed to enter an English University but he pursued his studies and became a Unitarian minister and teacher. He published many works of political philosophy and theology but his dissenting views were not always popular, especially at a time of revolution in Europe. His Birmingham home was destroyed along with most of his papers and belongings during the riots of 1791 because of his perceived support for the French Revolutionaries. The immediate excuse for the riots was a dinner in celebration of Bastille day, held by the Constitutional Society of Birmingham, a dinner which Priestley did not attend though he had assisted in the organization of the society. The riots raged from the evening of the 14th of July to that of the 16th, and were put down only at the arrival of dragoons sent from Nottingham. Damage was extensive: Old and New Meeting houses and seven residences were destroyed, other houses were wrecked. Priestley's house, his library, laboratory, and papers were ruined and his life was saved only because he had fled. English authorities generally approved of the riots, but they were denounced by many persons and organizations in England, Europe, and the United States and remain a blot on the history of British toleration.He had been a leading figure in the Lunar Society in Birmingham where his interest in scientific research in association with other like-minded scientists flourished. His work on the discovery of oxygen with Lavoisier led him to be called the 'father of modern chemistry' and his original work on the nature of electricity led to him being elected to the Royal Society in 1766. His experiences at the hands of the mob however forced him to flee to London but the public criticism of his views continued. He was forced to resign from the Royal Society and denounced by the clergy and when his sons decided to emigrate to America he joined them shortly afterwards in 1794.
Priestley died on 6 February 1804 in his Pennsylvania home. He was buried beside his wife and son, Henry, in the Friends' burial-ground in Northumberland. His daughter, Sarah Priestley Finch, predeceased him (1803). His eldest son, Joseph Priestley, returned to England in 1812 and died there (1863). The younger Joseph's first son remained in the United States and continued the Priestley line there, but his eldest daughter married a Birmingham politician, Joseph Parkes. Their daughter Bessie married Louis Belloc, and their children included Hilaire Belloc and Marie Belloc Lowndes. Of Priestley's other children, William Priestley was a disappointment to his father. Though he had married a Miss Peggy Foulke in February 1796, he was unable to settle down. In 1800 he created a scandal by putting tartar emetic in the family flour before departing to become a sugar planter in Louisiana. His daughter Catherine married another sugar planter named Richardson and their son, Henry Hobson Richardson, became a towering figure in the history of American architecture.

Sources : (accessed 19 Jun 2007). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
AcquisitionThis collection was purchased in a series of transactions from 1969.
CopiesHigh quality copy on staff R drive (items JP/1-17)
Related MaterialBirmingham University Special Collections also hold a large amount of Joseph Priestley publications including first editions of all his major works, and many of the tracts and pamphlets he published in his lifetime. Special Collections also hold the 'Priestley Bible', the bible which he used as Unitarian Minister at the New Meeting House, Birmingham, which was raised to the ground during the riots of 1791. William Withering was a fellow member of the Lunar Society and a collection of his letters are also available for consultation at Special Collections.


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