Montgomery and Gales Ride Again: A Second Life for Sheffield’s 18th-Century Sons of Liberty

In this, our first ever blog post, Dr Adam James Smith introduces the two Sheffield citizens who master-minded the protest poetry we’ll be exploring over the next few months: James Montgomery and Joseph Gales.

For those who know where to look the streets of Sheffield are paved with the story of one of its most beloved citizens: James Montgomery. He is the namesake of Montgomery Theatre, Montgomery Road and the one-time Montgomery Tavern. Montgomery is memorialised as a prolific champion of causes.

He was a vocal campaigner against slavery and religious intolerance and an avid supporter of universal access to education and political representation for all. When he died the people of Sheffield raised funds for a life-size bronze statue, while local government organised a bombastic city-wide funeral in his honour.

How remarkable it is then to consider that half a century earlier the same local government branded him a dangerous radical and had him twice imprisoned on dubious charges of sedition and treason. 

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

Indeed, in 1795 Montgomery was hauled in front of a jury in Doncaster for printing and distributing a poem in support of the French, Britain’s enemies at the time. Montgomery’s lawyer proved that not only did Montgomery have no knowledge of the poem in question, but that it had actually been written ten years previously and was addressed not to the current war with France but the events of the French Revolution. It’s a compelling case, documented and corroborated by numerous sources. Remarkably, Montgomery was still found guilty and sent to a prison in York.

Within 18 months of his release he would find himself back in that prison, this time for reporting that British soldiers had charged down a group of unarmed protesters in Sheffield. On the eve of this second trial Montgomery wrote to his close friend, local author John Aston, lamenting that it didn’t matter how strong a defence he presented, “the prosecution is levelled against the Iris; they are determined to crush it” [‘Letter to Joseph Aston’, Sheffield Archives: SLPS/37 (1) 4 (B)].

The Sheffield Iris.
The Sheffield Iris.

The Iris mentioned here is the Sheffield Iris: the newspaper that Montgomery edited from 1794-1825 and the sequel to the city’s most controversial paper, Joseph Gales’s Sheffield Register. It is amidst the pages of these papers, retrospectively characterised as Sheffield’s ‘radical press’, that the story of Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry takes place.

Montgomery had been born in Ayrshire, South-West Scotland, but as a teenager fled to England upon discovering that his parents planned to become Unitarian missionaries and move abroad. He was aiming for London, where he aspired to make his name as a poet but (as is so often the case) he wound up in Rotherham instead. And it was here that he applied to an advert in the local paper to be a jobbing-apprentice at the Sheffield Register.

The Sheffield Register had been founded by Joseph Gales, who (for his work on this paper and his role in founding Sheffield’s controversial ‘Society for Constitutional Information’) would later be forced to flee British shores as a felon charged with ‘conspiracy against the government.’

Each issue of the Register was four pages long, each page divided into five columns of type. Peppered with adverts throughout, each paper opened with a page of international and national news, followed by a page of aggregated ‘London news.’ Page three was dedicated to local news (and it is here that readers would find the ‘editorial’) and page four was for letters, essays and addresses. It was on the fourth page of these papers that Gales introduced a feature that would be continued in Montgomery’s Iris; a feature referred to affectionately in readers’s letters as ‘poetry corner.’

Known in the Register as the ‘Repository of Genius’ and the Iris as the ‘Bower of Muses’, this space saw the weekly publication of both locally produced poetry and works aggregated from elsewhere. The poems, which often write back to one another, demonstrate a deliberate attempt, by Gales and Montgomery, to create, record and promote a network of poets across Yorkshire. Additionally, as Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry demonstrates, ‘Poetry Corner’ also represented a deliberate attempt to build a coherent and effective platform for local protest in the face of national (and often international) forces.

The Register's 'Repository of Genius', dubbed by readers: 'Poetry Corner.'
The Register’s ‘Repository of Genius’, dubbed by readers: ‘Poetry Corner.’

The Register came to an abrupt close in 1793, with Gales abandoning the paper to start a new life in America far from the reach of a British government looking to charge him for treason. Within three months young Montgomery had taken up the mantle of his departed mentor, re-founding the paper as the Sheffield Iris.

Montgomery was not stupid. He went to great lengths to present the paper as having a far more moderate voice than that of its processor. However, whilst the paper’s prose avoided controversy the poems did not, and within a few issues readers’s letters begin to identify that the defiant spirit of the Register survived, concentrated and located exclusively in ‘Poetry Corner.’

These newspapers were topical and ephemeral, reflecting in granular detail the attitudes and anxieties of the moment they were produced. As the Register explicitly acknowledges time and again, Gales was editing the paper in the shadow of the still recent French Revolution (1787) and amidst the social, political and cultural aftermath of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791). Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the poems of the Register and the Iris are best unified by a central preoccupation: what are the fundamental rights and entitlements of all men?

It is in forcefully answering this question that the most common themes of this collection come into focus. These poems assert time and again that all men should be free. Most of these poems can be seen to trace the various connotations and manifestations of that freedom. They discuss such issues as: parity in political representation, universal access to education, racial and religious equality, the abolition of slavery and the need for worker’s rights.

Over the coming months Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry will get to know these poems, in detail. It will focus on the two year period when the Register became the Iris,  reading the poems published when the Sheffield press was under the most scrutiny from government-authorities and tracing the legacy of Gales’s project in Montgomery’s work as editor. 

Most importantly, though, we’re giving these poems (written in Sheffield by Sheffield residents) a second life, free of the constraints of 18th-century serial publications and allowed to speak for themselves for the very first time.

We’ll be publishing a newly-edited poem from these papers every Monday, as well as critical commentaries and additional material in the form of related blog-posts and podcasts.

Bookmark this page to join us on this journey!

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