The Repository of Genius: Poems of Passion from 18th-Century Sheffield

Not all of the poems printed in Joseph Gales’ Sheffield Register were angry. In this blog post our Cultural Engagement Fellow, Dr Adam James Smith, looks at some of the poems that were not written in protest but instead the joys and interests of Sheffield citizens at the end of the 18th century.

The poems in this blog post were first printed in the Sheffield Register, a popular provincial newspaper edited by Joseph Gales from 1787 to 1794. Each issue of this broadsheet paper was four pages long. The first detailed international and national news, the second news from London and the third news from Sheffield. The fourth page was for editorial essays, letters from readers and a weekly feature titled ‘The Repository of Genius.’

The ‘Repository’, referred to affectionately by readers as ‘Poetry Corner’, saw the publication of a different poem each week. These poems came from a selection of sources. Some were aggregated from elsewhere, with poems listed as coming from London, Newcastle, Manchester and sometimes as far afield as Edinburgh and New York. Some were also written by the newspapers’ own editorial team. However, the vast majority of these poems were actually submitted by the paper’s readership: the men and women of18th-century Sheffield. As a result, these poems offer a fascinating insight into the lives and every-day quotidian of people living in Sheffield 300 years ago.

As ‘Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry’ amply demonstrates, many of these poems were presented in the spirit of protest. Many embody the central interest of Gales’ project at large, demonstrating to Sheffield-readers their rights and entitlements as British citizens. Others directly critique the actions of a government managed in boardrooms and forums located over 200 miles south of their own homes. Some even go so far as to suggest that that central government would never truly work on behalf of the majority whilst the most powerful politicians were apparently more interested in lining their own pockets with tax-payers money than genuinely perusing progressive reform. It was a strange and different time.

However, not all of the poems printed in Gales’ ‘Repository’ were written in protest, nor were they all overtly political or partisan. Some, such as **Lines written upon the laying of the first stones of Sheffield Hospital** functioned almost as news, not only informing readers of events that should be important to them, but signaling whether these events were good or bad news. The erection of the hospital was of course good news. Elsewhere poems take on a more elegiac role, marking the passing of important figures around the city and indicating to readers the significance of their loss.

There are also some poems which reveal what it was that Sheffield residents enjoyed seeing and doing. A fair number of these poems demonstrate an interest in tourism, recording and recommending visits to local sites of interest and, sometimes, country houses. Transcribed below are two such poems, each published in 1793.

The first mourns the destruction of Sheffield Manor, indicating the esteem with which the house was held by the poet whilst gesturing to what the house represented to Sheffield citizens. Primarily, the house has become a symbol of history, something that should have been preserved. Specifically, the loss of the house also represents to this poet the loss of an important fragment of Mary Queen of Scots tragic story; an unfortunate tale compensated for only by its memorialization in the form of Sheffield Manor, now also lost.

For this Register-reader the country house represents a way of preserving stories, of processing and understanding a shared public history.


Lines, written after viewing the remains of Sheffield Manor

–––––––Unthinking wind!
Could’st thou not pass and leave behind
Yon ancient, venerable Pile;
Which many had a wintry blast hath borne,
Heedless of the threatening story,
Ignorant of th’ impending ill.–

Perhaps was to raze
From History’s page the dire disgrace
Poor Mary suffered there,
By an oppressive, haughty hand,
At whose imperious command
Will flow –– the charitable tear!

Sheffield Register # 318, 5 July 1793.

The second poem sees another Sheffield resident inspired to reflect on the linearity of time when visiting a sundial in the Derbyshire town of Buxton.

On Seeing a Dial in the Neighbouring Town of Buxton

By A Constant Reader

TIME’s Index! What canst thou do here?
Some happier climate seek;
Where Phoebus from his radiant car
At least peeps once a week.

Thus on some far extended Plain,
Our Cambrian’s mountains high,
Th’ unletter’d Finger-post in vain
Attracts th’ Traveller’s eye.

Ye bright-eyed Nymphs of Buxton’s streams,
Apollo’s loss supply:
Your cheerful  could-expelling beams
Has powe’r to clear the sky.

Sheffield Register # 341, 13 Dec 1793

The poem might smack of bathos now, as the poet imagines the supernatural machinery typically associated with the epic poetry of the ancient world here populating a small Derbyshire town, but this actually represents a deliberate effort on behalf of the poet to situate their own life and experience within a broader poetic universe, forging a distinct and deliberate kinship between Buxton and Olympus. And, significantly, this moment of reflection is brought about through tourism.

Gales’ ‘Poetry Corner’ serves today as it was always intended: as a remarkable ‘Respiratory’, not just of the radicalism that this project is more generally interested in, but of the passions and anxieties of Sheffield citizens alive at the end of the 18th century, and of the choices they made in expressing these passions and anxieties.

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