‘I fought for our liberty. For our hopes. For our dreams. And I’ll keep on fighting, whatever the cost.’
These are the words of the Aidan Turner’s Ross Poldark, the titular hero of BBC One’s flagship Sunday night drama. I make no secret of my unabashed affection for this show, I think it is terrific and I felt every moment of the dreadful 18 months that it was off the air. That said, when I heard this bracing micro-monologue on the teaser for the new series it wasn’t Poldark that sprung to my mind, it was the other eighteenth-century man in my life: Sheffield’s very own James Montgomery.
Memorialised by a life-size statue and the theatre of which he is name-sake, Montgomery is a figure remembered by many in the city. His legacy is as a man who valiantly stood up for the people of Sheffield time and again, petitioned for worker’s rights, religious and racial tolerance, universal access to education and absolute parity in political representation. He was also a vocal advocate for the abolition of slavery.
Like Winston Graham’s fictional Poldark, Montgomery was a man who was able to use his relatively privileged position in society to combat the social injustices he saw all around him, and like Poldark, he was often branded a revolutionary and a radical.
The Mighty who in splendour shine,
May thank their Stars that there are swine;
For, were we all of noble birth,
Where would we be Swine to root the earth,
To sweat and toil for their support,
Or, when they please, to be their sport?
Then hold not Swine in such disdain,
Since ‘tis by them you have your gain;
But learn to treat them with respect,
Lest they should grunt at your neglect:
For, should they be provok’d!—What then?
The Swine would rise—and rise to MEN!
(From: ‘The Observations of a Swine’, printed in Montgomery’s paper in 1793)
For the past few months I have been working on a live event based on the extraordinary life of James Montgomery, due to finally be unveiled to audiences next Sunday (25 Sept) on the final day of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind.
I’ve been researching Montgomery’s life and works for the past two years but it wasn’t until preparing for this event that I really began to think of him as a living breathing human being. The performance has been developed in close collaboration with Eclipse Theatre Company, who provided both a director and an actor to help me bring this story to life. On the day Montgomery’s poems, letters, essays and editorials will be performed by actor David Judge.
Over the past few months the script that I originally wrote has been work-shopped and revised in close consultation with Artistic Director Javaad Alipoor, who has constantly pushed me to empathise with Montgomery in ways I wouldn’t usually in my academic writing and research.
Together we have developed something very different to anything I’ve ever done before.
During the show we will juxtapose the mighty posthumous reputation of the older Montgomery with the trials (both figurative and literal) and tribulations of his youth.
Prepare to meet the distracted boy who drove his teachers to despair and the teenage run-away who shunned his parent’s religious life to follow in the footsteps of his childhood hero, the poet and libertine Robbie Burns.
This will be the story of the young man who aimed for London and landed in the political whirlpool of revolutionary Sheffield, only to throw himself so heartily into conflict with local and national government that he found himself fixed up and thrown in jail, twice.
This is the story of the James Montgomery, who, at an extraordinarily precarious point in his life and career, put everything on the line to hold his government to account.
Come and meet James Montgomery: the aspiring poet, the sweary punk-rocker, the rebel teenager, the enemy of the state, the great champion of causes and life-long abolitionist memorialised outside Sheffield Cathedral to this day. The real life Poldark of eighteenth-century Sheffield.
The show will be on at 12pm and 3pm on Sunday 25 September and it is free to attend. It is not a ticketed event but seating is limited, so be sure to arrive early to avoid disappointment.