James Montgomery: Sheffield’s Legendary ‘Poet, Patriot and Philanthropist’

This week we are joined on the blog by University of Sheffield undergraduate, Sonia Khan. As part of the Sheffield University Research Experience Scheme (SURE) Sonia has been working as a Research Assistant on our project over the summer, exploring the extensive collections of James Montgomery papers and manuscripts held at Sheffield Archives. After almost two months in the archive Sonia is now very well suited to posit an answer to one of the project’s most frequently asked questions: exactly who was James Montgomery?


 

Silhouette of James Montgomery (currently held in Sheffield Archives)
Silhouette of James Montgomery (currently held in Sheffield Archives)

During my time on this project I have been researching the astounding legacy of James Montgomery. Yet, when I tell people about my research, and about Montgomery himself, I am greeted with disappointingly blank faces. I’m asked  who he was, what he did, and why he’s important. I answer these questions as best as I can. I tell them about the James Montgomery monument, the Montgomery hall on Surrey Street, Montgomery road, and even the James Montgomery drinking fountain, on Broad Lane, Sheffield. I paint a picture of  a man who has become deeply embedded into Sheffield’s identity. A man who – if you look close enough – continues to resonate today, as a fundamental part of Sheffield identity.

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

When Montgomery died, he was given the title of ‘Sheffield’s greatest man.’ His ‘greatness’ cannot be disputed. In his lifetime, Montgomery had helped the public, fought for the abolition of slavery, and his hymns and polemical poems were often used when a reverend or vicar passed away.

Moreover, the evidence of Montgomery’s service to the public can be seen in the Sheffield General Infirmary. This was a building that was erected, in part, due to Montgomery’s active work in the local community.

Montgomery used his local newspaper, the Sheffield Iris to advertise its ongoing construction. Through this, Montgomery (alongside others) managed to secure enough funding for the construction of the Sheffield General Infirmary. The Sheffield General Infirmary, opened in 1792 and was used by the public until its eventual closure in the 1980s. This building is a clear testament of Montgomery’s service to the city of Sheffield.

However, once Montgomery died, his service to the community (and to the city as a whole) became much more pronounced.

After his death, the works of Montgomery were constantly and consistently used for fundraising events. The Missionary Exhibition sold Montgomery’s hymns as a fundraiser for the Moravian Church- with the expectation that they would reach well over their target. J. H Brammal also organised a fundraiser for the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society, where he exhibited Montgomery’s work:

Montgomery Manuscripts

Montgomery was not just a singular part of these fundraisers; he created their platform. Brammal does not just show Montgomery’s works, he showed the original manuscripts.

Specifically, Brammal exhibited the manuscripts of Montgomery’s radical and provocative past. These manuscripts  proved to be fascinatingly insightful. They demonstrate that the citizens of Sheffield were constantly, and effectively, drawn to Montgomery.

The citizens of Sheffield would happily peruse the poems that Montgomery had written at thirteen years of age. They would also be interested in his unpublished letters, which talked about the libels charged against him and the time that he spent in prison. Montgomery was no longer a mere man, but a consumable good. He was a figure that societies could package and sell, as the citizens of Sheffield were time and time again drawn to Montgomery.

Montgomery became so integral to the city of Sheffield that a statue was raised in honour. This statue cost £1000 and the money was raised by public subscription. Later on, a bust was sculpted in the likeness of Montgomery.

The bust itself can no longer be found, but a picture of it lives on at Sheffield Archives. It is clear then that the life of Montgomery was important to the citizens of Sheffield. The public were willing to invest in Montgomery; a clear sign that they valued him. As a result of this local importance, Montgomery came to embody a central part of Sheffield identity.

Older James Montgomery

 

However, it is important to acknowledge that Montgomery’s legacy did not occur after his death. It just became more prominent. Montgomery contributed to the identity of Sheffield when he was still alive. The provincial newspaper the Sheffield Iris was controversially known, but it was a newspaper designed to give a voice to the public. Through the paper, Montgomery championed for the rights of the people- and he was recognised for doing so. In a letter to Samuel Hoare, Montgomery described how he was beseeched by Hannah Kilham.

Kilham contacted Montgomery with ‘a desire to bettering the conditions of the poor’, entreating him to improve the Committee of Prison Discipline. His work, his poems, and his radical past, made Montgomery a prolific and accessible person. People came to Montgomery, asking and entrusting him with their causes. This demonstrates that Montgomery was already known to be a part of Sheffield identity. When he was alive, Montgomery was recognised as a man who actively fought against inequity and injustice. When dead, Montgomery continued to embody those qualities. The statue of Montgomery reminds the public of Montgomery’s legacy. Its granite pedestal reads:

“Here lies interred, beloved by all who knew him, the Christian poet, patriot, and philanthropist. Wherever poetry is read, or Christian hymns sung, in the English language, ‘he being dead, yet speaketh’ by the genius, piety and taste embodied in his writings.”

 

 

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.

Sheffield_Manor_Lodge

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.


Book-mark our page where we are releasing a newly-edited poem from The Repository of Genius every week. If you’re enjoying our site or you have any comments on this blog post, please drop by our Guestbook and leave us soon feedback!

The Songs of Sheffield’s Joseph Mather

This week we’re delighted to welcome Jack Windle to our blog to discuss another key figure of Sheffield’s 18th-century radical history: Joseph Mather.

Joseph Mather.
Joseph Mather.

This post is about a figure who would have been familiar to readers of the radical press and to Sheffielders more widely in the late eighteenth century. Joseph Mather symbolizes the birth of Sheffield’s working-class culture and the emergence of working-class writing. People familiar with his songs believe he should be celebrated as a folk hero in Sheffield and honoured and remembered alongside its more straight-faced radicals like James Montgomery and Samuel Holberry.

To that end, I am working on a project to revive, perform and record some of Mather’s songs with Ray Hearne at the Festival of the Mind and with Steven Kay to republish a selection of them with updated notes and a new introduction. Like his more famous contemporaries, Mather risked his freedom by speaking his mind to power and privilege and he passionately promoted and defended The Rights of Man, composing a Jacobin national anthem – ‘God Save Great Thomas Paine’ – in reaction to the government’s draconian ban on ‘seditious writings’ following its publication in 1791. But unlike progressive men of letters like Joseph Gales and James Montgomery, Joseph Mather was working-class – a file-cutter by trade – and his songs convey the texture of working-class life in the town (as it was then) and address power and corruption with the irreverent invective of working-class speech.

The bare facts of Joseph Mather’s early life are hard to pin down: it seems he was born in 1737 in Chelmorton, near Buxton, and came to Sheffield – probably aged ten or eleven – to take up an apprenticeship as a file-hewer (better known now as file-cutters).*

He lived in Cack Alley – ‘vulgar people called it by a more expressive adjective’, according to his biographer – just off Westbar Green and was a Methodist as a young man, acquiring a detailed knowledge of the Bible that is often evident in his songs: on having his use of the word ‘pate’ declared vulgar whilst singing ‘Frank Fearne’, Mather apparently directed his critic to the 16th verse of the 7th Psalm for a Biblical precedent. He began to use his facility for language to compose songs about local big-wigs whilst he was working in Shemeld Croft (roughly where Ponds Forge is now). Grinders at the neighbouring Park wheel persuaded him to perform his songs in the pubs frequented by the employers and ‘other persons deemed obnoxious’ that were Mather’s satirical targets. He obviously enjoyed the thrill and earned the admiration of local workers to the extent that he began to supplement his meagre earnings as a file-hewer by selling his songs in the streets, often from the back of a donkey, which he mounted back-to-front.**

This striking image of Mather peddling his wares is also an image of a crucial development in the making of the working class.

Broadsides – ballads or tales printed on flimsy paper and sold for a penny or ha’penny – ‘were the most widely available reading matter among the urban poor’ until the 1820s. Julie MacDonald writes that ‘ballads, broadsheets and newspapers […] helped both to educate people about the machinery of government and to shape popular ideas about how government policies impacted upon individuals and their local communities’.^ In a time of limited literacy, the performance of these texts was vital. They would have been read aloud at home, in ale-houses and at the political societies that were beginning to appear in industrial centres: the performance of these texts was an integral component of the grass-roots burgeoning of literacy at the end of the eighteenth century that was intimately bound up with dissenting demagoguery, democratic ideals and radical re-imaginings of the body politic.

One reason that Mather is such a powerful symbol of the emergence of working-class writing is that, despite his intimate knowledge of the Bible and his ability to read, he was unable to write. His songs were transcribed by friends for publication and weren’t collected until after his death when they were pieced together from the oral tradition, first by his friend Arthur Jewitt Jr and later by a cutler called John Wilson. The latter published The Songs of Joseph Mather in 1862 in a triumph of amateur scholarship every bit as impressive as Fred Ball’s recovery of the full text of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists almost a century later.

Wilson meticulously researched the contexts of Mather’s songs and the introduction and footnotes provide fascinating historical sketches of the Sheffield he inhabited. Wilson’s footnotes often evoke the long-forgotten history of places familiar to the local reader: ‘Pitsmoor firs, the name yet retained in “Firs Hill”, was the Sunday resort of numbers who preferred games at foot-ball and knurr and spell to attending the church’.

I went to Firs Hill school, where assembly hymns were stripped of religion-specific lyrics in recognition of the student body’s diversity of beliefs, and it’s amazing to think that two centuries previously Mather and his mates were dodging God and playing games on exactly the same site.

In a moving ‘Preface to the Reader’, Wilson writes that the only apology he can offer for any ‘defects’ is that ‘the work has been completed in hours stolen from [his] slumbers’: the songs survive because of Wilson’s passionate commitment to his own history and culture and are perhaps most fruitfully approached as documents of an oral tradition, traceable to an originating individual in Joseph Mather but co-authored and kept alive by a vibrant oral culture.
This is the first song in the book:

Mther Song 1

This opening song, with the missing line added by the volume’s former owner, the clergyman and mathematician Rev. Samuel Earnshaw, carries within it many themes recognisable in working-class writing right up to the present day: the physical effort and pain of work, poverty and debt, starvation and preoccupation with the belly, comparisons with slavery and revolutionary calls-to-arms.

Fittingly for a metal worker, the song uses chain-rhyme, making it robust, straightforward and easily memorable. It’s anchored in everyday speech, constituting the kind of verse in the language ‘really used by men’ that Wordsworth was trying, and largely failing, to achieve at the same time. Wielding the ‘six-pound hammer’ makes Mather ’round-back’d’ but earns so little that his family are constantly hungry (‘clam’ means ‘starve’). It is autobiographical in that Mather was in and out of debtor’s prison. Matter-of-fact declarations of poverty sit alongside the sermonically inflected political rhetoric that would develop in Mather’s later work, and in working-class radicalism more generally.

Mather correctly predicts that he must ‘a pauper die when old’ and in the final stanza calls for a ‘hanging day’ for ‘rich knaves’ to ‘swing for their unjust extortion’.

As well as depicting the grinding poverty of early industrial Sheffield, Mather’s songs record the carnivalesque hedonism of the time: in songs like ‘Timber-legged Harry’ and ‘The Sheffield Races’ a colourful cast of characters – many named for their physical deformities caused by work and deprivation – enjoy raucous festivities, ‘loosening their hides’ with huge quantities of ale and gin. Mather’s song describing Crook’d Jenny and Timber-legged Harry’s wedding ends with the lines, ‘Then those who were able retired to the stable / And slept with their nose in each other’s backside’. In ‘Nell and the Journeyman Hatter’ and ‘The Face-Card’ Mather conveys something of the scatological humour that appealed to the working classes at the time. The latter uses face-cards – the royals in a pack of playing cards – as a metaphor for shit, in a humorously absurd extension of Mather’s republicanism that also allows for related puns on flushes and trumps (I believe this usage is unique – Mather is cited in the OED’s entry for ‘face-card’ but only in its literal sense). In these more light-hearted songs, Mather represents the leisure, attitudes and sense of humour of ordinary working-class people and in doing so contributes to their cultural self-image and the beginnings of a complex working-class culture that would develop through the nineteenth century.

These songs convey something of the rites, customs and lived experience of Sheffielders in Mather’s day: others respond to specific historical events, catching – and no doubt helping to construct – the popular mood in relation to political crises, enclosure, miscarriages of justice, events in revolutionary France and even town planning controversies (‘The Black Resurrection’ is about the widening of Church Lane in 1785, which caused uproar because it required the removal of a number of graves). They are all well worth reading and give a valuable street’s-eye view of many important events during Mather’s turbulent lifetime. Here, though, I want briefly to discuss two of them because they are compelling stories about Sheffield and Sheffielders that link into historical events of national and international significance and demonstrate the power and importance of working-class writing.

On a Saturday night in August 1789, John Wharton was drinking with John Stevens, Thomas Lastley, Michael Bingham and John Booth in The White Hart on Waingate – one of 395 ale houses in Sheffield at the time. John Wharton declared that he was ‘off home’ and left. Stopping at a urinal on Lady’s Bridge, he put his basket on the pavement outside, emerging to find his pals had followed to get him to stay out and had got hold of his basket: a scuffle ensued and they made off with it, getting a landlady to cook the shoulder of mutton it contained in the expectation that Wharton would track them down and join them in the feast.

In March the following year Wharton reputedly fled in women’s clothing as an angry mob attacked his house. Mather composed ‘Steven’s and Lastley’s Execution’:

Mather song 2
Why had two of his friends been hanged over harmless drunken horseplay? Wharton, full of ale and worried what his wife would say, had asked Constable Eyre to give the others a fright and ensure he got his basket back – it contained the shoulder of mutton, a pound of tobacco, half a stone of soap, seven pounds of butter and 4d in money. All four were arrested but despite witnesses confirming their version of events – that it was nothing more than a joke and that they’d set money aside for the mutton – the local Magistrate, Vicar Wilkinson, sent all four to trial at York for highway robbery. The reasons for this wildly disproportionate reaction take us from a shopping list and the fug of ale and clay pipes in the White Hart to the other end of the class spectrum. MacDonald argues that ‘it can be no coincidence that [Wilkinson] took this decision on the same day as the Prince of Wales and his party, including the Duke of Norfolk, was expected to arrive at nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, the home of Earl Fitzwilliam’ (p. 222). The Earl paid close attention to events in the town and was concerned about the spread of radical ideas since Joseph Gales had started the radical Sheffield Register in 1787.

A portrait of Joseph Gales, currently held at the States Archive North Carolina.
A portrait of Joseph Gales, currently held at the States Archive North Carolina.

The Earl, through or with Wilkinson, might have encouraged Eyre to intimidate known radicals or certain groups in the town; the fact that he and Wharton would split a statutory £160 reward if all four were convicted – the ‘Soul sinking gold’ – would only have made the constable all the more willing. As soon as word of the verdict reached Sheffield a petition was signed by hundreds in the town and urgently dispatched to the Home Office: the injustice was so flagrant that pardons were immediately sent back north, but flooding near Lincoln held up the messenger and he arrived at York in time to save only Michael Bingham.

‘Stevens and Lastely’s Execution’ marks a turning point in class relations in Sheffield. A bitter industrial dispute had riven the Town through the 1780s, culminating in the Freemen of the Cutler’s Company – those who had served apprenticeships – demanding the right to elect its Officers, who were a self-perpetuating oligarchy. The Freemen elected Enoch Trickett as their leader and he demanded the freedom of election in terms that – in the context of events in France and rising radicalism at home – were seen by the establishment to be revolutionary.

Things came to a head in 1790 when scissor-grinders went on strike over pay – five of them being imprisoned for it – and master scissorsmith, Jonathan Watkinson, unilaterally demanded 13 blades to the dozen from his workers. This incident prompted Mather’s most well-known song, and the only one of which a an original copy still survives (this is a scan of a photocopy but it shows how Mather’s songs would have appeared):

Mather 3

This is the opening verse and the chorus:

Mather 4
Mather spotted Watkinson at the theatre one night and struck up the song: those around him in the cheap seats joined in for the chorus. Repeated harassment of this kind led Watkinson to a breakdown and he died a year later. There are few more striking and immediate examples of working-class writing as a weapon in class warfare. As Tony Harrison has written, ‘articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting’: Joseph Mather’s songs helped Sheffield’s emerging working classes to articulate their anger at exploitative bosses and to declare their right to a greater share of the profits of their labour. But they also fostered a positive sense of class identity, reflecting the joyful side of working-class life and the warmth and camaraderie of an emerging urban, communal culture.

E. P. Thompson famously wrote that the ‘working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time’ and that it ‘was present at its own making’: Mather was one of those makers of the working class and his songs are powerful documents that speak to us directly from its emergence.


*Joan Unwin has written a great piece about file-cutters here.
**I’m very grateful to Sarah Jane Palmer for her illustration of Mather on his donkey.

^ These two sentences quote Martha Vicinus, The Industrial Muse, p. 9 and Julie MacDonald, The Freedom of Election (University of Sheffield Thesis, 2006), p. 9.

Please visit www.proletics.wordpress.com for more articles on working-class writing and Sheffield history or email Jack Windle j.windle@sheffield.ac.uk if you’d like to know more or share any insights.

Event: ‘Sheffield: City of Protest’, 27 May, Bank Street Arts, 6-8pm

To celebrate the legacy of Sheffield’s 18th-century radical press this very special event will bring together activists, campaigners and commentators from across the city to ask what makes Sheffield such a vibrant city of protest!

In the final decade of the 18th century the editors behind Sheffield’s radical press put everything on the line to stand up for the city’s citizens. Fearing that the actions of their monarchy and government represented a shift towards tyranny and a general lack of interest in the welfare of British citizens outside of London, Joseph Gales and James Montgomery took to the press to hold their social masters to account.

Silhouette of James Montgomery (currently held in Sheffield Archives)
Silhouette of James Montgomery (currently held in Sheffield Archives)

In the pages of the Sheffield Register and the Sheffield Iris Gales and Montgomery would present a different poem each week, many of which were written by Sheffield residents, addressing their biggest concerns and imploring local and national government to consider reform. Many of these issues remain prescient today. Together they campaigned for political representation and access to education for all, workers’ rights and racial and religious tolerance.

For this, Montgomery was twice sent to prison for publishing allegedly treasonous material. Gales was charged with ‘conspiracy against the government’ and was forced to flee British shores and start a new life abroad as a fugitive. Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of the authorities, Gales and Montgomery were successful in establishing Sheffield as a city of protest more than happy to campaign against anything it perceives as wrong or unfair.

The young James Montgomery.
The young James Montgomery.

Coinciding with the launch of a new digital anthology of protest poetry printed in Sheffield at the end of the 18th century this special event will bring together a host of speakers involved in activism and literature across the city today. We will hear from the people involved in campaigning for difference right now, whilst also asking what it is about the Steel City that has made it such a hot-bed for protest and activism for (at least) the past 300 hundred years. Tracing legacies from the work of Sheffield’s 18th-century radical press to the remarkable work still taking place across the city today, this promises to be both an entertaining and engaging evening and a fitting celebration of this fantastic city.

Speakers will include:

  • Drs Hamish Mathison and Adam Smith (Sheffield University, Sheffield: Print, Protest, Poetry, 1790-1810 Project)
  • Julia Armstrong (Sheffield Star)
  • Dr Sam Browse (Sheffield Hallam University, Campaigner)
  • Reverend Deacon Andrew Crowley (Sheffield Interfaith Network)
  • Karl Riordon (Poet, Campaigner)
  • River Wolton (Poet, Campaigner, Stories of Activism Project)
  • Prof Sue Vice (Sheffield University, Barry Hines Project)

The event will close with a wine reception marking the official launch of our new digital anthology.

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

This is a University of Sheffield School of English Event, Generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Counsel

The event is free but spaces are limited so please book your place here to avoid disappointment.

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!