“Coming in his early years to Sheffield as a stranger, became one of its most esteemed, influential, and beloved citizens.” – Reverend W. Odom (1929)
Though my work on politics and politeness in the Whig-sponsored press of the early Hanoverian period continues, I am now also researching the political writing of Sheffield’s own James Montgomery (1771-1854). I will be charting the progress of my work on this blog. Here you can see what I’m up to, find out about upcoming Montgomery events, or get in touch if you have any questions!
Sheffield: Print, Protest Poetry, 1790-1810
This AHRC-funded cultural engagement saw Dr Hamish Mathison and I creating an on-going digital anthology of protest poetry printed in Sheffield’s radical press at the end of turn of the 19th century.
- Visit our website
- Listen to our Podcast
- Order a copy of Poetry, Conspiracy and Radicalism in Sheffield, ed. Hamish Mathison and Adam Smith (Sheffield: Spirit Duplicator, 2016)
- Public Event ‘Poetry, Protest and Imprisonment: James Montgomery in York Castle Prison’, Mint Yard Lecture, York Explore Library, 11 April 2017, 6-8pm.
- Public Event: ‘Inglorious Prey: The Incarceration of James Montgomery’, York Literature Festival, York St John University, Quad South Hall, 22 March 2017, 2-4pm.
- Public Event: ‘Poetry and Protest’, Off The Shelf Festival, Sheffield Students Union, 17 October 2016, 7.30pm.
- Public Event: ‘James Montgomery: A Life of Activism’, a Dramatic Production by Eclipse Theatre Group, 25 September 2016, 12pm and 3pm, Barker’s Pool, Sheffield.
- Public Event: ‘The Montgomery Theatre Heritage Open Day’, 10 September, Sheffield.
- Public Event: ‘Sheffield: City of Protest’, 27 May, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield.
- Academic Talk: ‘”The Price of Tickets and of Souls”: James Montgomery’s Political Poetry of 1816’, June 2016, ‘Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil’, University of Sheffield. Listen to the podcast!
- Academic Talk: ‘Literary Criticism in the Trial of James Montgomery and Sheffield’s Radical Press’, 7th January 2016, St Hugh’s College, Oxford University. This paper forms part of a panel titled ‘Printing, Publishing and Reading Communities in 18th-Century Yorkshire’ at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Annual Conference.
- Public Talk: ‘Poetry on Trial: The Prosecution of James Montgomery’, Mobile University, Sheffield City Centre, 14th September 2015.
- Public Event: ‘Printing in 18th-Century York’, York Festival of Ideas, 16 June 2015.
Related Blog Posts and Publications
- Rough House Journalism in Eighteenth-Century Sheffield
- The Repository of Genius: Poems of Passion from 18th-Century Sheffield
- Montgomery and Gales Ride Again: A Second Life for Sheffield’s 18th-Century Sons of Liberty
- Spotlight on Sheffield Archives: James Montgomery and the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society
- The Trial of a Sheffield Legend… on a Bus!
In the Media
- Review of Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry, 1790-1810 (British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies)
- Sheffield Editors who Stood up for Liberty (Sheffield Star)
- Poems that Stood up for Sheffield (A Covent Garden Gilflirt’s Guide to Life)
- On the Effects of Gold (Now Then Magazine)
- Print Protest and Poetry (Eighteenth-Century Common)
How did I get from Joseph Addison to James Montgomery?
After spending the best part of five years reading political periodicals written in and around early 18th-century London I had become more than a little aware that one thing that all of these papers shared, regardless of their partisan persuasion, was a smugly metropolitan perspective. The good voting citizen is defined in these papers, almost universally, in contrast to a pejorative imagining of the provincial North. So, naturally, upon completing my PhD (in Sheffield, whilst working in York) I had one burning question: How do these partisan papers work in the North?
This question has led me to the extraordinary life and writing of James Montgomery…
The Extraordinary Life and Writing of James Montgomery
As the life-size bronze statue standing outside Sheffield Cathedral can attest, James Montgomery – poet, hymn-writer, statesman, journalist, slavery abolitionist and namesake of Montgomery Theatre, Montgomery Road and the one-time Montgomery Tavern – is an undisputed Sheffield legend.
Montgomery’s long life saw him edit the Sheffield Iris newspaper and become the nation’s most prolific hymn-writer, as well as a respected poet and man of letters. He went on to become one of Britain’s most vocal anti-slavery abolitionists, a pioneering philanthropist and a champion of both non-conformist religion and education for all. The life of Montgomery has, historically, been easily divisible into four distinct acts, creating the impression that Montgomery was a very different man at the beginning and end of his career.
First, his time as editor of the Sheffield Iris sees him as the hot-headed angry young man all too keen to consort with known radicals and stir up descent. Then, his two stints in jail on dubious charges of ‘sedition’ see him cast as the unfairly prosecuted man of letter and repentant radical (an impression crystallised in his own self-published prison poetry: Prison Amusements, 1797).
This is followed by his apparent withdrawal from popular political debate and journalism to instead focus on religious writing, becoming known instead as the nation’s most prolific hymn-writer for the best part of two decades.
Finally, he ends his life as the great philanthropist and champion of causes remembered by the city today.
Where once he was a counter-cultural figure, seen as rallying against both the local and national political elite, by the time of his death he was accepted by the establishment; himself now a symbol of the progressive potential of politics.
Much of this narrative is captured in the composite biography composed by his friends and published within a year of his death: John Holland and James Everett’s, Memoirs of the Life of James Montgomery (1855). Montgomery easily walks the pages of this memoir like the saint of his own hagiography, always steadfast in his convictions and ever keen to challenge the powers that be and preserve the welfare of those without. There is a greater emphasis in the volume on the writing of Montgomery’s later career, his imprisonment for sedition functioning as a thematic rebirth, purging his public persona of the charges of radicalism that had dogged his early career.
However, there is an abundance of material in both Sheffield Archives and the University of Sheffield Special Collections which serve to complicate this story of Montgomery’s life, proving that there are a series of strong continuities between the work and ambitions of both the young and old James Montgomery.
His early journalism, his manuscript poetry, over 1500 letters written during his life-time and collected by the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society and the wealth of material gathered but ultimately un-used by Everett and Holland reveal Montgomery’s life to be less one of personal transformation and more one of cautious re-branding and increasingly sophisticated public relations.
Indeed, the content of Montgomery’s writing is in fact arguably more radical at the end of his career as he takes on the issues of slavery and equal access to education, than it ever was when he was courting public controversy for criticising local government in the Sheffield Iris. What has changed is his public persona, carefully dismantled and reconstructed through his prison poetry and the editorials published in the Iris on either side of his imprisonment.
From then on he was able to build a new reputation as a hymn-writer, poet and advocate of moderation and reconciliation, entering the political fray at the end of his career from a very different position. Ultimately, I hope to argue that not only is it seen to be Montgomery’s careful regulation of his own reputation that led to his extraordinary local legacy, it was this patient self-fashioning that saw him accepted by the establishment that once sought to silence him, garnering him a position from which he could finally enact the changes he had advocated from the very outset of his career.
Find out more about James Montgomery!
- Poetry, Conspiracy and Radicalism in Sheffield, ed. by Hamish Mathison and Adam James Smith (2016)
- Odom, Two Sheffield Poets: James Montgomery and Ebenezer Elliot (1929)
- Elgin S. Moyer, Who Was Who in Church History (1962 )
- John Holland and James Everett, Memoirs of the Life of James Montgomery (1855) [Free to access on Google Books]
Montgomery in the Archive:
- Drop into Sheffield Archives on Shoreham Street and consult the catalogue to read letters, essays and notes written by Montgomery himself!