James Montgomery: Sheffield’s Legendary ‘Poet, Patriot and Philanthropist’

This week we are joined on the blog by University of Sheffield undergraduate, Sonia Khan. As part of the Sheffield University Research Experience Scheme (SURE) Sonia has been working as a Research Assistant on our project over the summer, exploring the extensive collections of James Montgomery papers and manuscripts held at Sheffield Archives. After almost two months in the archive Sonia is now very well suited to posit an answer to one of the project’s most frequently asked questions: exactly who was James Montgomery?


 

Silhouette of James Montgomery (currently held in Sheffield Archives)
Silhouette of James Montgomery (currently held in Sheffield Archives)

During my time on this project I have been researching the astounding legacy of James Montgomery. Yet, when I tell people about my research, and about Montgomery himself, I am greeted with disappointingly blank faces. I’m asked  who he was, what he did, and why he’s important. I answer these questions as best as I can. I tell them about the James Montgomery monument, the Montgomery hall on Surrey Street, Montgomery road, and even the James Montgomery drinking fountain, on Broad Lane, Sheffield. I paint a picture of  a man who has become deeply embedded into Sheffield’s identity. A man who – if you look close enough – continues to resonate today, as a fundamental part of Sheffield identity.

The James Montgomery monument, currently situated beside Sheffield Cathedral.
The James Montgomery monument, currently situated beside Sheffield Cathedral.

When Montgomery died, he was given the title of ‘Sheffield’s greatest man.’ His ‘greatness’ cannot be disputed. In his lifetime, Montgomery had helped the public, fought for the abolition of slavery, and his hymns and polemical poems were often used when a reverend or vicar passed away.

Moreover, the evidence of Montgomery’s service to the public can be seen in the Sheffield General Infirmary. This was a building that was erected, in part, due to Montgomery’s active work in the local community.

Montgomery used his local newspaper, the Sheffield Iris to advertise its ongoing construction. Through this, Montgomery (alongside others) managed to secure enough funding for the construction of the Sheffield General Infirmary. The Sheffield General Infirmary, opened in 1792 and was used by the public until its eventual closure in the 1980s. This building is a clear testament of Montgomery’s service to the city of Sheffield.

However, once Montgomery died, his service to the community (and to the city as a whole) became much more pronounced.

After his death, the works of Montgomery were constantly and consistently used for fundraising events. The Missionary Exhibition sold Montgomery’s hymns as a fundraiser for the Moravian Church- with the expectation that they would reach well over their target. J. H Brammal also organised a fundraiser for the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society, where he exhibited Montgomery’s work:

Montgomery Manuscripts

Montgomery was not just a singular part of these fundraisers; he created their platform. Brammal does not just show Montgomery’s works, he showed the original manuscripts.

Specifically, Brammal exhibited the manuscripts of Montgomery’s radical and provocative past. These manuscripts  proved to be fascinatingly insightful. They demonstrate that the citizens of Sheffield were constantly, and effectively, drawn to Montgomery.

The citizens of Sheffield would happily peruse the poems that Montgomery had written at thirteen years of age. They would also be interested in his unpublished letters, which talked about the libels charged against him and the time that he spent in prison. Montgomery was no longer a mere man, but a consumable good. He was a figure that societies could package and sell, as the citizens of Sheffield were time and time again drawn to Montgomery.

Montgomery became so integral to the city of Sheffield that a statue was raised in honour. This statue cost £1000 and the money was raised by public subscription. Later on, a bust was sculpted in the likeness of Montgomery.

The bust itself can no longer be found, but a picture of it lives on at Sheffield Archives. It is clear then that the life of Montgomery was important to the citizens of Sheffield. The public were willing to invest in Montgomery; a clear sign that they valued him. As a result of this local importance, Montgomery came to embody a central part of Sheffield identity.

Older James Montgomery

 

However, it is important to acknowledge that Montgomery’s legacy did not occur after his death. It just became more prominent. Montgomery contributed to the identity of Sheffield when he was still alive. The provincial newspaper the Sheffield Iris was controversially known, but it was a newspaper designed to give a voice to the public. Through the paper, Montgomery championed for the rights of the people- and he was recognised for doing so. In a letter to Samuel Hoare, Montgomery described how he was beseeched by Hannah Kilham.

Kilham contacted Montgomery with ‘a desire to bettering the conditions of the poor’, entreating him to improve the Committee of Prison Discipline. His work, his poems, and his radical past, made Montgomery a prolific and accessible person. People came to Montgomery, asking and entrusting him with their causes. This demonstrates that Montgomery was already known to be a part of Sheffield identity. When he was alive, Montgomery was recognised as a man who actively fought against inequity and injustice. When dead, Montgomery continued to embody those qualities. The statue of Montgomery reminds the public of Montgomery’s legacy. Its granite pedestal reads:

“Here lies interred, beloved by all who knew him, the Christian poet, patriot, and philanthropist. Wherever poetry is read, or Christian hymns sung, in the English language, ‘he being dead, yet speaketh’ by the genius, piety and taste embodied in his writings.”