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.
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.
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!”
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!