Reference numberMS/654
Previous numbersMS 654, MS 655, MS 656
TitlePriestley Papers
CreatorPriestley, Joseph (1733-1804) Scientist
DescriptionOne volume of items relating to Priestley's life, three letters from Priestley, his spectacles, and Diploma and seal awarded in 1780 by Catherine II, Empress of Russia
ExtentOne bound volume, three letters and Diploma, 2 photographs
Finding aidsCatalogued in Archive card catalogue
Access statusOpen
Administrative historyBorn in Birstall, Yorkshire, the eldest of six children. From 1742 adopted by his father's eldest sister, Sarah, wife of John Keighley. At Batley Grammar School from 1745, where learnt Latin and Greek; subsequently pupil of John Kirkby (1677-1754) congregational minister who had taught him Hebrew. Health initially not good enough to be a minister, so taught himself French German and Italian, and sought instruction in algebra and mathematics from George Haggerston (d. 1792) When health improved went to a dissenting academy, the Daventry Academy, where he was the first theological student under Caleb Ashworth, although Samuel Clarke (1727-1769) had more influence. His first post was as presbyterian minister at Needham Market, Suffolk, where his preaching was uncontroversial, though he did not hide his Arianism. In 1758 he became minister at Nantwich, Cheshire, where he established a flourishing school, and formed friendships with Edward Harwood and Joseh Brereton, vicar of Acton. In 1761 he became tutor at Warrington Academy, followed in 1762 by becoming ordained and marrying Mary, daughter of Isaac Wilkinson of Plas Grono, ironmaster at Bersham. The marriage led him to found a 'widows fund' for protestant dissenters of Lancashire and Cheshire in 1764, which became a valuable benefit society. Priestley spent a part of every year in London, where he met Benjamin Franklin. He was happy at Warrington, but it was not well paid, and his wife's health failed, so he took a post at Mill Hill Chapel, Leeds in 1767, where his ecclesiastical views underwent a change, and his printed tracts aroused criticism. In 1770 he founded the Leeds circulating library, and in 1771 received the offer of the post of astronomer on Captain Cook's second expedition by Sir Joseph Banks which he was unable to take up. Instead, in 1772 he took up the post of librarian or 'literary companion' with William Fitzmaurice-Petty, second earl of Sherburne, afterwards first marquis of Lansdowne, at Calne. The books he catalogued are now the Lansdowne MSS in the British Museum, and he was given an extra £40 a year for his scientific experiments.He made his major discovery of 'dephlogisticated air' on 1 August 1774, just before accompanying his patron on a continental tour. His winters were spent in London, where he frequented the Whig Club at the London coffee-house of which Franklin and Canton were members. In 1780 he and Shelbourne parted amicably, and he moved to Birmingham to be nearer his brother-in-law John Wilkinson, who provided him with a house. His income was augmented by gifts from a wealthy widow, Elizabeth Rayner, and by annual subscriptions from his friends, such as Josiah Wedgwood the potter, and Samuel Parker a London optician, who also supplied him with every instrument he needed in glass. He became engaged for pastoral Sunday duty at the New Meeting in Birminghan in 1780. He dined once a month with the 'Lunar Society', meeting Matthew Boulton, James Keir, James Watt, William Withering the botanist and Erasmus Darwin. Politically he was never a member of a political party, but supported the reforming measures of the abolition of the slave trade and the repeal of the test and corporation acts. Popular feeling was against him after he vindicated the principles of the French revolution. In 1791 the Constitutional Society of Birmingham held a meeting, to which Priestley did not go, but which led to riots; finding the guests had left the Dudley Hotel, the mob attacked the residences of the organisers, including Priestley's house at Fairhill. Therafter he took up residence in London, becoming minister at the Gravel Pit Chapel in Hackney, where his friends more than made up his financial losses. However, he considered emigration to America for the sake of his children, a move supported by his wife, and in 1793 his three sons emigrated, followed in 1794 by Priestley and his wife. He settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, and after the death of his wife in 1796 went to live with his eldest son. He was never naturalized as an American citizen. He considered returning to Europe, especially France where he had property, but developing a fever while visiting Philadelphia in 1801 enfeebled him, and he died in Northumberland in 1804, and was buried in the Quakers burial ground there with William Christie giving a funeral address.
Related materialDr William's Library, correspondence and papers, 250 letters to Theophilus Lindsey, 1766-1803; Harris Manchester College Library, Oxford University, notebook and sermons, 1760-1790; Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania. correspondence and papers; American Philosophical Society Library, correspondence and papers; Dickinson College Library, correspondence and papers; Leeds Leisure Services, MS sermon and adddress relevant to Birmingham Riot; Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Record Service, biographical chart of the world; Birmingham City Archives, letters and sermons, 1767-1793, 12 letters to Matthew Boulton 1775-1802, letters to James Watt, 1789-1790; Special Collections Department, Birmingham University Information Services, Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy, reference 1956/v/16, letters Reference Priestley; Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 11 letters to Benjamin Barton, 1795-1803; American Philosophical Society Library, correspondence with Benjamin Franklin, 1766-1782, 41 letters to John Vaughan, 1791-1800; Private, Letters to Lord Lansdowne, 1772-1793; Special Collections and Western Manuscripts, Bodleian Library, Oxford University, 20 letters to Richard Price, 1766-1791; Manuscript Collections, British Library, letters to William Russell, 1791-1794; Washington Library, correspondence with John Wilkinson; North Yorkshire County Record Office, correspondence with Christopher Wyvill;
Fellows associated with this archive
NA8274Priestley; Joseph (1733 - 1804)1733 - 1804
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