Joseph Priestley and Leeds

Joseph Priestley was born about six miles from Leeds in Birstall in 1733. In 1767 he became Minister at Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds, one of the oldest and most respected Dissenting congregations in England. Whilst waiting for the Minister’s home in Basinghall Street to be renovated, he lodged in Meadow Lane, close to the site that became that of Tetley’s Brewery. There he developed a method of dissolving the “fixed air”, evolved from the fermenting liquids at the public brewery, in water. (In 1783 Johann Schweppe patented a method of carbonating water.) At his home in Basinghall Street, in 1771, Priestley showed that a mouse and a candle flame both expired when kept in an enclosed jar, yet a sprig of mint continued to grow. A mouse in the jar with a plant survived longer than a mouse without the plant. He left Leeds in 1773 to work for the Earl of Shelburne.

He acquired a burning glass and, with it, heated some mercury calx. This caused a gas to be evolved that could produce a bright candle flame. When this gas was breathed by a mouse in a jar, the mouse led a rather more energetic existence than did a mouse that breathed air. If these facts held, they “will open up a new field of knowledge” said Benjamin Franklin. How right he was. Priestley subsequently settled in Birmingham, where in 1791 demonstrations against Dissenters resulted in the destruction of his home, library and laboratory. His support for the English “Glorious Revolution”, as well as that leading to the newly formed United States and the French revolution did not make life any easier for him and in 1794 he settled in the United States where he spent his last decade, a close associate of both Adams and Jefferson.

Whilst in Leeds, Priestley was a founder member and first Secretary of the Leeds Library and was involved in a philosophical society that was the forerunner of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. On Tuesday, 13th April, a Seminar reception was held at the Leeds Library and a brief talk on its history was given by its Librarian, Geoffrey Forster.

Delegates then walked over to the Mill Hill Chapel where John Lydon, the current Secretary of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society gave an enlightening lecture on

“Joseph Priestley, Dissenting Radical and Revolutionary Chemist”.