York Literature Festival: James Montgomery Performance. “For books, my friend, are charming brooms”.


By Nicoletta Peddis

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

Trailer for Adam Smith's performance on Montgomery at Sheffield's "Festival of the Mind" in 2016.


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. Failing school, he was apprenticed to a baker in Mirfield. After further adventures, including an unsuccessful attempt to launch himself into a literary career in London, he moved to Sheffield to work at the Sheffield Register, directed by Joseph Gales. At the Register, a newspaper of radical ideas, Montgomery rediscovered his passion for literature and started to write inflamed poems in the poetry section of the publication, the “Repository of Genius”, regarding 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 Montgomery was charged with sedition and treason for the publication of a poem that he never wrote and imprisoned in 1975 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 will be published in 1796 as “Prison Amusements”. After his release, Montgomery is charged again in less than a year for criticizing a magistrate for forcibly dispersing a political protest in Sheffield. After this experiences James Montgomery’s life started to change. He turned away to politics and activism and turned to business. He carried on writing poems and started to write hymns. He later was 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 to his ideals? He was definitely 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 definitely never turned his back to 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 a wider research regarding the connection between poetry and radical protest in Sheffield between 1790 and 1810. The focus on James Montgomery is one of the results of this broader research ending in “The Wagtail Poet Prison Project”. It is possible to find out more about this project at https://yorkwagtailpoets.wordpress.com and it is also possible to respond to James Montgomery’s prison poems either creatively or critically getting in touch with Dr. Adam Smith at a.smith3@yorksj.ac.uk .