About the Project

‘Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry, 1790-1810’ is a Cultural Engagement project based in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project is directed by Dr Hamish Mathison and researched and curated by Dr Adam James Smith.

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

Sheffield: A City of Protest

The rich history of Sheffield throughout the 20th and 21st centuries has been one bound up in stories of civic and social activism. This was emphasised recently by the ‘Stories of Activism’ project, which foregrounded a startling variety of campaigns addressed to such issues as pit closures, miner’s strikes and support for asylum seekers. Even in 2016 Sheffield has been a stage for protest, notably garnering national news coverage for protestor’s responses to the refugee crisis, austerity and the treatment of junior doctors. This project argues that none of this is new, suggesting that this facet of the city’s identity can be traced back at least as far as the turn of the nineteenth century, and to the pages of two radical newspapers in particular: The Sheffield Register (1787-1794) and The Sheffield Iris (1794-1825).

The Sheffield Register, characterised by its vehement assertions of freedom and liberty, its championing of political and social reform and its animosity towards central parliament and the monarchy, came to an abrupt close when its editor, Joseph Gales, was forced to flee British shores as a fugitive charged with ‘conspiracy against the government.’ The paper was re-founded by James Montgomery: then a poet and fledging journalist, later the legendary abolitionist and statesman memorialised by the life-size bronze statue currently still standing beside Sheffield Cathedral. Within 18 months in post as editor of the new Sheffield Iris Montgomery had been twice charged and imprisoned for printing ‘seditious’ and ‘treasonous’ materials.

Both the Register and the Iris adopted the same format, each weekly issue (published every Friday) consisting of four broadsheet pages divided into five columns. Peppered with adverts throughout, the first two pages addressed international and national news (with large sections typically dedicated to events in London). The third housed local news (which usually doubled as an editorial essay) and the fourth was reserved for letters, essays and the most regular feature of each paper: ‘Poetry Corner.’ In the Register this section is titled ‘The Repository of Genius’, in the Iris it is the ‘Bower of Muses.’

Here we find a different poem each week, either written by a Sheffield resident or aggregated from elsewhere, but usually addressed to one of a series of recurrent themes: political liberty and reform, religious and racial toleration, worker’s rights and resistance to Britain’s on-going war with France.

This project takes these poems as its focus, exploring the ways in which Gales and Montgomery established and utilised a network of poets to offer an accessible, reactionary and effective voice for social and political protest in Sheffield at the end of the eighteenth century.

The first phase of this project will focus on the poems published during Gales’s final year editing the Register and Montgomery’s first editing the Iris; a transitional moment in the history of these papers and the time at which they were under the most scrutiny from local government.

About the Archives

This project makes use of the extensive newspaper collections held by the University Library’s Special Collections at the University of Sheffield. It also draws upon materials held in the ‘Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society Collection’ at Sheffield Archives.

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