In the final years of the 18th century the editors of two of Sheffield most radical newspapers put everything on the line to stand up for the citizens of Britain’s steel city.
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 government to account.
In the pages of the Sheffield Register (1787-1794) and the Sheffield Iris (1794-1825) Gales and Montgomery campaigned for fair treatment from local and national authorities whilst also ensuring that all Sheffield citizens were aware of their rights and constitutional entitlements.
As Gales himself stated in his final editorial, it was his paper’s ambition to ‘rescue my Countrymen from the darkness of ignorance and to awaken them to a sense of their privileges as human beings, and, as such, of their importance in the grand scale of creation.’ More than anything else, Gales wanted to prove to his readers that their city mattered and that they deserved the respect and representation of their country’s leaders.
Writing under the close scrutiny of suspicious local authorities at a time of intense censorship both the Register and the Iris presented their most controversial material in verse rather than prose. In a section referred to affectionately by contemporary readers as ‘Poetry Corner’, Gales and Montgomery provided a platform from local protest poets to express in incredible detail the attitudes and anxieties of their time. Reoccurring themes included the need for universal political representation and access to education, racial and religious equality, the abolition of slavery and the importance of worker’s rights.
Ironically, an overarching concern across many of these poems was that the freedom of the press might be in jeopardy. These poems regularly asserted that if the government could not legally be criticized then there remained no safe-guard against tyranny. As one reader contributed in April 1793, this seemed to be increasingly the case:
We may speak (it is true) if we mind what we say;
But to speak all we think, will not suit in our day:
These lines proved prophetic, with the Register coming to an abrupt close just a few months later. Charged with ‘conspiracy against the government’ Gales was forced to abandon the paper to start a new life in America as a fugitive.
Fortunately, within three months the paper would be re-founded by the young James Montgomery as the Sheffield Iris. As a teenager Montgomery had fled from Scotland upon discovering that his parents aspired to move abroad and work as religious missionaries. He had intended to get to London and pursue a career as a poet, but after getting stranded in Rotherham he decided to apply for a job at the Register instead.
As a close friend of Gales and an acolyte of the Register’s politics, Montgomery worked fast and hard to rally funds and support for a new paper, the Sheffield Iris. This new paper would position itself as an explicit continuation of the Register’s ethos and vision. And for this Montgomery was twice sent to prison for publishing allegedly treasonous material.
In 1795 Montgomery was hauled in front of a jury in Doncaster for printing and distributing a poem in support of France, 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. 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)].
Sadly, the persecution of Montgomery was little more than history repeating, his sentiments recalling the final to be penned by his former mentor in the final editorial of the Sheffield Register: ‘It is, in these persecuting days, a sufficient crime to have printed a newspaper which has so boldly dared to doubt the infallibility of ministers, and to investigate the justice and policy of their measures.’
The evolution of Gales’ and Montgomery’s ‘Poetry Corner’ across both the Register and the Iris is currently the subject of a AHRC-funded Cultural Engagement Project in the School of English at the University of Sheffield.
Directed by Dr Hamish Mathison and researched by Dr Adam Smith, the project will produced a freely-accessibly and newly edited digital anthology, due to arrive online on 27 May 2016. In the meantime the project is counting down to this launch by releasing a newly-edited poem every Monday.
Crucially this project is able to give these poems - written by Sheffield residents three centuries ago a second life - free of the constraints of 18th-century serial publications and allowed to speak for themselves for the very first time.
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Written content of this post copyright © Adam Smith, 2016.