The Plastic Hippo

July 14, 2012

This machine kills fascists

Filed under: Birmingham,History,Literature,Music,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 9:29 pm

The historical significance of Quatorze Juillet is not confined to the storming of the Bastille by the citizenry of Paris in 1789 or the Priestley Riots in Birmingham two years later. On July 14, happy birthday to Woody Guthrie; if he had lived, he would be 100 years old today.

The storming of the Bastille is still celebrated as a symbol of the relevance of the French Revolution and with socialist president Francois Hollande`s feet now firmly under the Elysee Palace table, the commemoration this year is especially poignant. Spare a thought, though, for theologian, scientists, natural philosopher and former resident of Sparkbrook, Joseph Priestley. After inventing soda water, discovering oxygen and establishing Unitarianism in England, this dissenting cleric went on to influence John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham in the formulation of utilitarianism. No surprise then that there is a statue of him standing in Birmingham city centre. Sadly, he was not afforded the honour during his lifetime.

In 1791, when he and some of his enlightened chums in the Lunar Society decided to organise a dinner to celebrate the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, a drunken mob burnt down his church and his house as well as the homes of other Lunar Society luminaries. It has been alleged that the “Church-and-King” mob were acting under the instructions issued by Birmingham politicians and senior Birmingham Anglican clergymen who considered the Enlightenment as being the work of the devil. Priestley was forced to flee to Hackney and after more sustained harassment and persecution, eventually left these shores and settled with his family in Pennsylvania. The then Prime Minister, William Pitt the younger and the then monarch, King George III were not sorry to see the back of him. Priestley was described by his opponents as ungodly, unpatriotic and a threat to national security. Thank goodness we have moved on from those unenlightened times. Now, when we fear opposition, we do not hire drunken mobs to burn our enemies out. Instead we hire arsonists to clear the way for property developers. Consider Great Barr Hall, on the border of Walsall and Birmingham, where the Lunar Society once met and torched not once but twice to make way for “bespoke executive residences”.

Priestly died in February 1804, 108 and half years before the birth of Woody Guthrie and 129 and a half years before a democratically elected German fascist government banned all other political parties. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a rather long but very good poem in which he said:
“…Lo! Priestley there, patriot, and saint, and sage,
Him, full of years, from his beloved native land
Statesman blood-stained and priests idolatrous
By dark lies maddening the blind multitude
Drove with vain hate…”

Happy Bastille Day. Where are Joseph Priestley and Woody Guthrie when you need them most?


  1. Good old Jeremy Bentham. Bugger the London Eye and all that, why not go and say hello in person? Having said that, all these years on, I don’t know if you need to arrange a visit if you’re not a student. During my sandwich year doing research for an eminent professor, he was just the bloke in the glass box you passed by en route to wherever. I loved the weirdness of it back in 1987/8 and I still do. Thanks to Mrs Johnson, my history teacher, who ensured I knew who Jeremy Bentham was before I “met” him.

    Comment by kate Goodall — July 14, 2012 @ 10:02 pm | Reply

  2. The Scott Arms was the regular meeting place for the Lunar Society.
    The original building was a major coach station. It became the ‘must go to’ venue for fine wines, beers, food and above all transport. It was therefore a natural place of congregation for those that could afford travel and wished to meet in convivial surroundings.

    In 1969, it was demolished, for no observable purpose, other than to allow developers to make a shed-load of money and the Council to claim traffic improvements. As part of its re-building as a grotesque combination of a major pub and shopping centre so beloved of Birmingham City Councillors in those days, a strange but compelling wrought-iron wall mounting was produced.

    It depicted,Priestley, Hooke, Newton, Watt, Salter and Avery along other scientific illuminatae of the time. Several interpretation panels were also incorporated, presumably as a developers sop to planners in what passed for conservation in Birmingham in the late ’60’s.

    No doubt, alongside another containerful of iron products, it has been shipped to China for re-processing.

    Bentham must be weeping.

    The Realist – University College London – Reading Utpoia

    I wonder where it is now? At least we know where Jeremy lives!

    The Realist

    Comment by The Realist — July 17, 2012 @ 12:13 pm | Reply

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