16. Mrs Sarah Priestley Finch

Buried at The Birmingham General Cemetery (Key Hill)

Section K : 518 - 519

Died June, 1803 Aged 40 years.


Sarah was the daughter of Joseph Priestley who was minister at the New Meeting House in Birmingham for some years. In 1803 Sarah was buried in the burial ground of the New Meeting House then, in 1862 reburied with family in the Birmingham General Cemetery at Key Hill.

Sarah's father, Joseph Priestley was an 18th-century English theologian, dissenting clergyman, natural philosopher and chemist and played a leading part in non-conformist history in Birmingham. Amongst many other things he is credited with the discovery of oxygen and carbonated water, the latter being a discovery that he was not interested in exploiting but it was taken up by a certain Mr. Schweppe. There will be more about Sarah's father in a future article about the Birmingham General Cemetery's connection with Birmingham's dissenters.

The memorial inscription reads:-

Sacred to the memory of Lucy Finch daughter of William Finch & Sarah his wife born May 21st 1797 died September 18th 1860 aged 63 years. Also removed to the grave from the New Meeting Yard, Moor Street January 1862 the remains of William Finch born October 26th 1756 died March 7th 1831. Sarah his wife who was daughter of Joseph Priestly LL.D. born April 17th 1768 died September 1st 1803 & Anne Finch daughter of the above born April 9th 1788 died February 26th 1862. Also Catherine Irene Finch their daughter born 3rd October 1801 died 27th October 1883.

(note: some dates differ)


Sarah Priestley, Joseph’s eldest child and only daughter, had a special connection with her father who desired to have her with him always. During her childhood, Sarah learned to play the harpsichord, and cared for her younger brothers.

One of Sarah’s friends recalled the occasion when ‘Sally,’ as she was known, decided to help out by cleaning her father’s laboratory. In the process, she very carefully washed out all the bottles for him, necessitating tactful and loving intercession by her mother on Sally’s behalf.

Faujas de Saint Fond, a French scientist and traveler, described Sarah as Dr. Priestley’s “amiable daughter,” having “much vivacity of mind and gentleness of manner.”

In 1786 Sarah married William Finch, an ironmaster and nail maker who experienced mixed business success in his career. Within sixteen months, Sarah bore her first child, a daughter Ann, who became a ‘favorite’ with Anna Barbauld, poetess and friend of the Priestley family. By 1797, when Sarah was pregnant with her sixth child, her husband was bankrupt. Joseph Priestley took up his daughter’s plight and asked John Wilkinson to cash in funds from Priestley’s French investments to aid Sarah.

In autumn of 1801 Sarah had her last child, a daughter named Catherine Irene. Although her grandfather never knew of Catherine’s success as a schoolmistress, he would have been proud of her for she followed in his footsteps in education.

After eighteen years of marriage, Sarah died in June 1803 at Bordesley, England, and was buried at the New Meeting, Birmingham. She was forty years old. Because of slow delivery of the mails, Joseph Priestley, by this time in failing health, never learned of Sally’s death before his own occurred. But, with the greatest of understanding and love for his dear Sally and her children, Priestley bequeathed to her an annuity of sixty pounds sterling, or to her children in case of her death, and stipulated through three named trustees, that Mr. Finch was expressly not entitled to any part of the money, nor could he exercise any control over it.