York Literature Festival: James Montgomery Performance

“For books, my friend, are charming brooms”.

On Wednesday the 22nd of March, as part of York Literature Festival, Dr. Adam Smith guided the audience through the life and poetry of James Montgomery, delivering an engaging performance which combined readings of Montgomery’s poetry with interesting insights into the biography of this complex historical character.

Montgomery was born in Scotland, the son of missionaries of the Moravian Brethren. He was sent to be trained for the ministry at the Moravian School at Fulneck, near Leeds. At Fulneck, secular studies were banned, but James nevertheless found means of borrowing and reading a good deal of poetry and made ambitious plans to write epics of his own, but upon failing school, he became an apprentice baker in Mirfield.

After further adventures, including an unsuccessful attempt at launching a literary career in London, he moved to Sheffield to work at the Sheffield Register, founded by Joseph Gales. At the Register, a newspaper of radical ideas, Montgomery rediscovered his passion for literature and started to write radical poems for the poetry section of the publication, the “Repository of Genius”, writing about themes such as the abolition of slavery and the conditions of the working class.

In 1794, Gales left England to avoid political prosecution and Montgomery took the paper in hand, changing its name to the Sheffield Iris. These were times of political repression and in 1975 Montgomery was charged with sedition and treason for the publication of a poem that he didn’t write and was subsequently imprisoned at York Castle Prison for three months. He continued to write poems that were sent to the Iris and to which readers responded. A pamphlet of poems written during his captivity was published in 1796. It was called “Prison Amusements”.

After his release and in less than a year, Montgomery was charged again for criticizing a magistrate for forcibly dispersing a political protest in Sheffield. After this experience James Montgomery’s life started to change. He turned away from politics and activism and turned to business. He carried on writing poems and started to write hymns. He was later decorated with the title of Poet Laureate and became a Tory MP.

Did James Montgomery become the establishment he was fighting against? Did he turn his back on his ideals? He was undoubtedly a complex and fascinating character and, as Dr. Adam Smith reminded us, even though his political views changed, the theme of slavery always remained extremely important to him and Montgomery never turned his back on literature and poetry.

The performance that Dr. Adam Smith delivered at York St John’s University as part of the York Literature Festival is part of wider research into the connection between poetry and radical protest in Sheffield between 1790 and 1810. You can find out more about The Wagtail Poet Prison Project at yorkwagtailpoets.wordpress.com and you can also respond to James Montgomery’s prison poems either creatively or critically by getting in touch with Dr. Adam Smith at a.smith3@yorksj.ac.uk.

Words: Nicoletta Peddis



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