1794, so much to answer for

I’m not sure where this is pointing, but I think it’s the future.

A strange cast of people have occupied my reading in recent months – English and French, writers and scientists, aristocrats and hackers. Now, like a Heroes season finale, I find them converging on a single year.

To keep track of the people and places I scribbled a map. On the right, my six-year-old son has added, with relish, a depiction of the Battle of Fleurus. More on that further on.

The story goes like this.

On February 22, Joseph Priestley, radical preacher and discoverer of oxygen, resigns his nonconformist ministry in Hackney, London, shortly to leave Britain for America.

After the destruction of his Birmingham home and laboratory by a loyalist mob in 1791 Priestley considered a move to France. But three years on, the revolution is devouring its children. Camille Desmoulins, the journalist whose cry “to arms!” sparked the storming of the Bastille, goes to the guillotine in Paris on 5 April, along with his political mentor Georges Danton and 13 others. Their crime – arguing for restraint against Maximilien Robespierre’s violent faction.

On 8 April, Priestley and his family board the Samson to sail from Gravesend. Six days later, the radical London Corresponding Society holds a mass meeting at Chalk Farm, with the writer and orator John Thelwall as master of ceremonies. As Robespierre’s terror grows in Paris, William Pitt’s British government begins a clampdown of its own.

Throughout the summer the panic spreads. We find advertised in the  Leeds Intelligencer of 12 May: ‘Just published, price sixpence, a concise sketch of the intended revolution in England with a few hints on the obvious methods to avert it.’

Is Priestley, mid-Atlantic, completely incommunicado during May? How soon after his arrival in New York on 4 June does he hear of the arrest of  Thelwall and other LCS leaders, and of the execution in Paris of Antoine Lavoisier, the aristocratic chemist who named the gas that Priestley had isolated? Are Priestley’s American hosts aware of Lavoisier’s role in improving the quality of the gunpowder which they used just a few years earlier to win independence from the British?

On 26 June, France’s revolutionary army takes Fleurus after the hot air balloon l’Entrprenant provides vital reconnaissance, the world’s first decisive use of aircraft in warfare. Imagine being among the first in human history to see the world from above.

On 28 July Robespierre himself goes to the guillotine, but the war goes on.

On 15 August Claude Chappe ushers in the age of communication at the speed of light, by sending a semafore message over a series of towers from Lille to Paris reporting on the capture of Le Quesnoy from Prussian and Austrian forces. The invention is called the “telegraph”.

Somewhere in hiding, having been on the losing side in the siege of Lyon a year earlier, is the impoverished weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard. Soon he will switch sides and gain the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte with his machine for weaving complex patterns in silk using programs stored on punched cards.

Back in Britain’s rapidly industrialising north, rival start-ups are forming to exploit the new energy technology of steam.

In Leeds, where Priestley first isolated the component parts of air, Matthew Murray and David Wood are planning the construction of the Round Foundry, the world’s first purpose-built engineering works.

In Birmingham, home of Priestley patrons the Lunar Club, Matthew Boulton and James Watt are founding the business that will carry their names around the world. Later, they will send spies to Leeds and buy up the land adjacent to the Round Foundry to stop Murray and Wood expanding.

How did it feel for Murray to leave Marshall’s Mill, of which he was the chief engineer, to set up his own business doing something no one had ever done before? Was it all the more intimidating to do so in a time of war, with the threat of revolution in the air?

On 28 October Thelwall and the other LCS leaders go on trial at the Old Baileycharged with high treason. In essence, the prosecution argued that they sought ot overthrow the Crown and institute a Jacobin terror in Britain

But on 5 December – 10 months to the day after his counterpart Desmoulins lost his life – Thelwall is acquitted, saying he sought change “by peaceable means, by reason alone”. Thelwall goes on the be a thorn in the side of an increasingly repressive government, a champion of democratic government, and a critical commentator on the living conditions of the industrial cities.

1794, so much to answer for. I feel an e-book coming on.

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