Dungeon Poetry: James Montgomery’s 1796 Arrest.

Despite his revered position in Sheffield’s community, James Montgomery was no stranger to persecution. In this blog post Eighteenth-Century MA student, James Earley, looks at the poems written by James Montgomery whilst imprisoned in the Castle of York. 


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

Montgomery, and the rest of the radical political societies in Sheffield came under fire in 1795 & 1796 in a series of high profile prosecutions. Specifically, the charges against Montgomery were in 1795 comprehensively false and only instigated to increase the pressure upon Sheffield’s radical community*. In 1796, the charges brought against Montgomery were on the basis that Montgomery had published a report on the violent crushing of a riot, a report which was accepted as factually correct. Nevertheless, on two occasions, Montgomery was found guilty and imprisoned within the Castle of York for crimes against the crown. His longest stay at York was in January 1796, where he spent six months imprisoned for sedition.

Yet, whilst imprisoned Montgomery continued to publish poetry in his newspaper The Sheffield Iris. Between January and July 1796 the newspaper published ten Montgomery poems which are explicitly stated to be penned within the Castle of York. The implication of continuing to publish poetry whilst imprisoned is so interesting in Montgomery’s case because his crime was the publication of seditious poetry. The action of Montgomery’s supposed criminality continues whilst he is in York. Furthermore, he actually releases poems into his newspaper at an increased pace, publishing ten in six months – he had only published ten poems in The Iris prior to that (two of which were printed during his first imprisonment).

The novelty of this concept is that there is an adverse relationship between Montgomery’s political freedom, and his literary notoriety. To put it bluntly, the government’s attempt to silence Montgomery failed, and instead he made a hell of a lot of noise from behind bars. What interests me is the fact that Montgomery can actually publish so freely from behind bars. Truly, it seems awfully unusual that Montgomery can get away with being so vocal whilst he literally has his freedom taken from him by the British government.

This will surely be looked at in a later blog, but for now let’s move to a poem that was published during Montgomery’s 1796 stay at York. To view the poem please click the PDF link below.

The Captive Nightingale

While a ‘nightingale’ may seem like a tired vehicle for the message that Montgomery is relaying, the etymology of the way that nightingales, and talking birds, have been constructed throughout literature actually creates a nuanced sphere of inference around Montgomery’s bird.

There is firstly the Greek myth of Philomela, who was raped and mutilated by the King of Thrace, and then turned into a nightingale after taking revenge. By referring to ‘Philomela’, there is an immediate association of the nightingale and victimhood. Explicitly, this is a subjugation which is based upon an institutional power dynamic: Philomela is subjugated by a king, and the nightingale by human authority.

Secondly, the construction of a mournful victim allows us to return to late eighteenth century sedition trials. Montgomery and his contemporaries were preceded by the well-known trial of Thelwall, Tooke and Hardy in 1794. Thomas Hardy, a friend of Montgomery, lost both his wife and new-born whilst imprisoned. Hardy’s grief is captured in Montgomery’s poem ‘Verses on Hardy’.

Verses Dedicated to Hardy’ The Iris, Issue 23, 05/12/1794 Lines 1-8.

‘Is this thy grave?’ th’ afflicted patriot said,
And fresh from every pore his sorrows bled:
‘Is it thy grave!’ but grief dissolving speed,
Dumb silence spoke what language could not reach:
Foil in his eyes, whence drops of anguish stole,
Beam’d all the husband’s, all the father’s soul
— Why was thy wife from thine embraces torn?
Why, but to perish, was thine infant born? –

There is, at the very least, a parallel between the nightingale’s ‘stolen’ family and the death of Hardy’s family. The nightingale is aligned with a well-known sympathetic figure.

This minuscule line of inquiry into the poem begins to show that imprisonment failed to blunt Montgomery’s protests. His overarching thesis about a mankind’s inalienable right to liberty, which Adam Smith has spoken on previously, is clearly and unapologetically present in ‘The Captive Nightingale’*. Montgomery finishes on his own affirmation that, like his prisoner nightingale, he works for ‘freedom, or thy tomb.’


Tolley, ‘Montgomery, James (1771–1854)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19070, accessed 29 June 2017]

Adam Smith – ‘Sheffield 1794: Print, Protest, and Poetry’

‘Words with Wagtails’: A New Montgomery Project

Former Cultural Engagement Fellow for Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry, Dr Adam James Smith (York St John University), has recently launched a new project based on James Montgomery’s prison writing.  ‘Words With Wagtails: York Prison Poetry’ will re-present Montgomery’s 18th-century prison poetry to a new audience, inviting views, commentary and creative responses addressing its utility and relevance in the complex and confusing political world of 2017.

Montgomery in chains


James Montgomery was editor of the Sheffield Iris newspaper when he was condemned to his sentence at York Castle Prison in 1795. He had only recently taken over the paper, previously titled the Sheffield Register, when his close friend and former editor Joseph Gales had been forced to flee to America when charged with ‘conspiracy against the government.’ His crime: organising a Sheffield Society for Constitution Information, a local club of citizens interested in observing what it was that their government did in their name.

Both the Register and the Iris shared a reputation for radicalism, regularly printing poems of protest attributed to local citizens. It still came as a shock, however, when just six months into his editorship Montgomery was charged with ‘treason’, accused of writing and printing a libellous poem he claimed he’d never even seen.

Despite the swells of vocal support from his home-city, Montgomery was found guilty and sent to York Castle Prison. From his cell he penned poems, many of which made their way out and back to Sheffield where they were printed in the Iris. Not only were they well received, they often prompted responses from loyal readers, penning Montgomery their solidarity in verse.

York Castle Prison.
York Castle Prison.


Adam launched the new project at The York Literary Festival in March 2017, offering the following account of what readers and participants have in store:

“This project will bring Montgomery’s prison poetry out of the archives and present them once more to a public audience. And, just as Montgomery’s poems solicited a profound response from his readers, we hope that they will once again initiate creative and relevant dialogues. In this spirit, we will be welcoming responses from readers, showcasing critical and creative responses from a broad range of perspectives. For instance, we’ll be hearing from researchers working on 18th-century prison conditions, the genre of prison-writing and 18th-century politics and radicalism, as well as from individuals whose life and work has been impacted by Montgomery’s prolific legacy. If you too would like to respond to this body of work, please do let us know!”

The launch of the 'Words with Wagtails' project at the York Literary Festival.
The launch of the ‘Words with Wagtails’ project at the York Literary Festival.

In the first instance, the project has arranged for responses to be written by people who share interests in the topic of prison poetry: Dr Jack Mapanje, the Malawian writer and poet who was himself imprisoned from 1987-1991 for indirectly criticising President Hastings Banda; Dr Elodie Duché, a historian researching the experiences of war captivity, and Adam, himself a literary scholar interested in political writing and protest poetry. A full list of contributors can be found here.

At the launch event Adam talked about the extent to which this new project builds on everything that has already been achieved as part of Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry:

“This project wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the ground broken by the Sheffield Protest project, and I’m delighted that both are now up and running, exploring two really prolific moments in Montgomery’s literary career. I hope that at some point the projects can come together, ultimately contributing to a comprehensive archive of Montgomery’s poetry.”

From his cell Montgomery longed for the conversation of absent friends, forlornly speaking instead to the loyal wagtail and the convivial robin; birds who would visit his window each day. Little did he expect that two centuries later we’d not only be listening but ready to reply!

If you too would like to respond to these poems, either creatively or critically, please get in touch by emailing Adam at: a.smith3@yorksj.ac.uk