Hutton published the first history of Birmingham in 1782; the book, which went through a number of editions, is one which is still referred to today for its take on the 18th-century town. As a non-conformist he was targeted during the 1791 Priestley Riots and escaped to safety in Castle Bromwich
18th-century Birmingham was a centre of non-conformity with a large number of chapels of all sorts of persuasions. Because it was a town with no ancient guilds or trade restrictions, it attracted influential thinkers, scientists and entrepreneurs, many of whom were dissenters. One such, Joseph Priestley, scientist, philosopher, activist and Presbyterian minister, declared in his ‘Sermon on the Slave Trade’ in 1788: “We should interest ourselves not only for our relations, and particular friends; not only for our countrymen; not only for Europeans, but for the distressed inhabitants of Asia, Africa, or America; and not only for Christians, but for Jews, Mahometans, and Infidels”.
This was very radical thinking for the time and genuinely disturbing for those whose self-interest was invested in the status quo.
Many non-conformists looked to the French Revolution of 1789 as having been a great blow for freedom, an event which shook off the shackles of a dictatorial monarchy and established church.
Friday 14 July 1791
On Friday 14 July 1791 some dissenting gentlemen arranged to meet at the elegant Dadley’s Hotel in Birmingham town centre. (The hotel stood on the present site of the House of Fraser department store, facing St Philip’s churchyard and opposite St Philip’s Place). For five shillings ‘friends of freedom’ were invited to share a dinner to celebrate the second anniversary of the French Revolution. They were careful to include in their advertisement in Aris’s Gazette, the declaration: ‘Vivant Rex et Regina’ – Long live the King and Queen.
Neither William Hutton nor Joseph Priestley was present at the dinner.
During the meal, stones were thrown through the windows of Dadley’s Hotel by a crowd of protestors outside whose cry was “Church & King”. It has never been proved, but is strongly suspected that these Birmingham working men were encouraged to riot. It is almost certain that they had been given money and alcohol, probably by members of the Anglican and royalist establishment who had real fears that what had happened in France might also happen in England. They were worried that their way of life was in serious danger should an English Revolution take place.
The riot outside Dadley’s was just the beginning. For three days gangs of drunken rioters burned and looted and the houses of wealthy dissenting families around Birmingham. A number of non-conformists chapels were burned that night and the next day Joseph Priestley’s house in Sparkbrook was destroyed along with his laboratory and scientific research papers.
Saturday 15 July 1791
On the Saturday morning William Hutton’s town house and book shop on the High Street (now the site of Waterstone’s book shop) went up in flames and Hutton fled to his country house on Washwood Heath (It stood on the hill on Washwood Heath Road opposite Bennetts Road).
Hutton was warned that the rioters were going to destroy that house too, so he stored as much furniture as he could in the barn of a one of his neighbour’s. In the meantime the riotous mob arrived and his house was set alight. The neighbour, fearing that his own house would be burned, ordered Hutton to remove his furniture from the barn. His furniture was to suffer the same fate as his house.
Hutton then managed to secure the services of a coachman and the family made their escape along Washwood Heath Road and the Coleshill Road to the inn at Castle Bromwich. The inn was the Bridgeman Arms, a building which still stands on the Chester Road close to Castle Bromwich Hall. It is no longer an inn but is now divided into two private houses known as Delamare and Wayside.
However, Hutton considered Castle Bromwich to be too near the scene of the action and decided to move on. He ordered a post chaise to take him to Sutton Coldfield, some seven miles away.
The family booked in at The Three Tuns, an inn which is still open for business on Sutton High Street. However, by the evening, news of the riots had reached the landlady; she believed that her guests would cause her own house to be burnt and ordered then out. So the unfortunate family then took a coach to Tamworth where they spent the night at the Castle Inn, another hostelry which still thrives.
Sunday 17 July 1791
Hutton rose early on the Sunday morning thinking that he should go back to Washwood Heath and Birmingham to save what he could of his possessions. So he decided to return to Castle Bromwich. He was in despair. He later wrote:
‘The lively sky, and bright sun, seemed to rejoice the whole creation, and dispel every gloom but mine.’
It is difficult to know by which route the family returned to Castle Bromwich. Hutton says that they crossed the country to Castle Bromwich ‘by a road which never chaise went before, and of which we walked nearly a mile.’ While the turnpike roads were not always well maintained, they were certainly passable by coaches. Stage coach services ran regularly on roads between Birmingham, Tamworth, Coleshill, Kingsbury and Castle Bromwich. It may be that the Huttons used poorly metalled side roads and avoided the turnpikes either to avoid suspicion and detection or simply because they had not the money to pay for the tolls.
While the family were staying at the Bridgeman Arms in Castle Bromwich, a stranger was shown in. He was returning from a journey and had heard about the Hutton family’s misfortunes. He knew that they must be in financial straits and, although he had not much money on him, was happy to give what he had to tide them over their current difficulties. William Hutton described him as ‘a real gentleman.’
Hutton discovered later that the man was one John Finch, a banker of Dudley, a non-conformist and a man well-known in his own district for his charitable deeds.
After the Huttons had eaten, William decided to go and see what was left of his house on Washwood Heath. On the way he was unlucky to come across some of the rioters, who were pushing cartloads of goods stolen from Lady Carhampton’s house, Moseley Hall. Hutton was recognised and abused verbally, though not physically, the rioters shouting, “Down with the Pope!” In his memoir, Hutton commented on the sad ignorance of his abusers. As a non-conformist, Hutton was at the opposite end of the religious spectrum to the Pope.
Hutton found his house to be in ruins, still smouldering, and with nothing left to save.
When he returned to Castle Bromwich, he found more rioters at the door of the Bridgeman Arms with cartloads of stolen booty, some of the items, no doubt, being Hutton’s own possessions. He did not dare to enter the inn and hid behind a hedge.
He stayed hidden there until night fell, waiting for the rioters to move on. While he was still in hiding, some anxious villagers approached him. They were worried for their own safety and begged him to leave. However, with his family hidden inside, he would not.
After a while he was approached by a stranger who addressed him by name and informed him that he had seen soldiers of the light-horse brigade passing through Sutton on their way to restore order in Birmingham. Hutton’s immediate troubles were over, though it would be a long time before his house and fortunes were restored.
Monday 18 July 1791
The next morning William Hutton left Castle Bromwich with his family. Passing the burned out ruin of his house on Washwood Heath, he made his way into town to find his town house and shop on the High Street also in ruins. However, he was warmly welcomed back by friends, who were much relieved to find him unharmed, and no less than seventeen of them offered him accommodation in their own houses.