A Life of Activism: The Legend of James Montgomery Back

This one-hour performance gave a biographical sketch of the life of James Montgomery (1771-1854), a Sheffield radical, poet and newspaper editor, who was charged with treason, sedition and libel against the government as a young man and imprisoned for seven months in York Castle for printing a poem critical of the government, in his newspaper, the Sheffield Iris. Montgomery later became a conservative MP, and director of a Boiler Society and seems to have become thoroughly part of the establishment. The event was part of the Festival of the Mind organised by the University of Sheffield as a way of taking academics and academic research out onto the streets of Sheffield and to engage the wider public.

The performance took place in the Spiegeltent, which is an elaborate travelling tent, with ornate carved figures and mirrors creating an atmospheric setting for the show. The stage by contrast was bare; there was a table and chair and the only props used were a pen and paper. In front of the stage were chairs set around tables. The bustle of the city was just audible, rumbling along outside with shoppers and buses moving around the city on the bustling Saturday morning, reminding us that we were very much in the heart of the city centre on Barker’s Pool, next to Sheffield City Hall and shops.

The performance was structured as a two-man show which related the life of Montgomery in chronological order. Dr Adam James Smith created the piece with director Javaad Alipoor and actor David Judge, and it was a collaboration between the University of Sheffield and Eclipse Theatre, a black-led theatre company. Dr Smith acted as part-academic commentator and part-narrator, telling the story of Montgomery and fleshing this out with analysis. Judge stayed in the role of Montgomery throughout and alternately sat and stood at the desk, either thinking or posed over a pad of paper and scribbling with his pen, whilst Adam talked, presenting us with the figure of Montgomery as poet, thinker and writer. Judge beautifully performed some of Montgomery’s poems and brought Montgomery’s voice in his written memoirs to life, speaking in the first person as Montgomery, drawing no doubt from Adam’s original and in-depth scouring of the archives for poems, articles, and memoirs. The performance succeeded in bringing the essence of Montgomery to life through the seamless interaction between these two figures. And both benefited from the other: Montgomery’s words and the performance of them brought life and vigour to Adam’s analysis, whilst in turn his commentary framed Montgomery for the audience and encouraged us to ask certain questions of the man we were encountering through Judge’s excellent performance. A key question that recurred throughout was how we can reconcile the contradiction in our understanding of a man who as a young man was a radical and challenged the status quo of the government, then became a Tory MP and ‘sold out’ to the establishment?

Adam pointed out turning points in Montgomery’s life story, such as the moment he decided to read a radical poem at a rally protesting against the war with France, and his decision to work for the newspaper editor Joseph Gale: a known radical who was later sent to exile in the United States. Performing Montgomery’s life in chronological order also provided a way to see his progression and his human frailty, from his time as a runaway apprentice baker, to his failed attempts to sell his poems in London, to his excitement upon obtaining his first post in charge of poems at the Sheffield Register. The performance fleshed out the story of Montgomery’s life in a way that reading his biography would not, endowing it with a presence and aliveness that was a pleasure to watch.

Adam invited his audience to forge links between the climate of political dissent in Sheffield in the early nineteenth century, and contemporary questions about the Northern powerhouse and its role in post-Brexit Britain. He noted that key grievances of political dissenters included how Westminster could represent the North hundreds of miles away, and the issue of politicians squandering tax payers’ money. By bringing in these links, Smith asked his audience to read Montgomery as a hero whom we could embrace today. The audience murmured sympathetically at these points and a question by one woman at the end of the performance suggested that the image of Montgomery as a radical-turned-Tory who challenged society from within had her convinced that he was still relevant today.

Throughout, Smith suggests that it is Montgomery’s abolitionism, and his championing of workers’ rights (although this latter point is not substantiated by examples), that maintain his radical stance, even when he ‘sells out’ to become a part of the establishment as a Tory MP, but I wonder if he makes too much of this point and whether this reads as a continuation of Montgomery’s youthful spirit of protest or not? It sees Montgomery’s abolitionism purely in a benevolent light, which does not do enough, I feel, to acknowledge the benefits of this anti-slavery position for Montgomery and the wealthy set of contemporaries with whom he rubbed shoulders. Christopher Leslie Brown suggests that anti-slavery can generate a ‘moral capital’ for individuals and groups, and this could be a fruitful lens for examining Montgomery’s anti-slavery activism.[1] The performance also presented Montgomery as an isolated figure operating largely alone, and it would have been nice to have heard other Sheffield voices, particularly contemporary female and black voices. Perhaps to take one example we could have heard from Montgomery’s friend Mary Anne Rawson, a female anti-slavery campaigner also campaigning for abolition in this period, or from Frederick Douglass, who visited the city and Rawson. Adam achieved much though in his ability to pull in and engage members of the public in the life and legacy of this Sheffield man. He reminded us of the culture of protest which characterised one of the city’s heroes and stands tall in the public memory of Sheffield in its streets, statues and buildings.

[1] Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

A Life of Activism: The Legend of James Montgomery was performed on 25th September 2016 at the Spiegeltent, Barker’s Pool, Sheffield. The co-creator of the work, Adam James Smith, is one of the subject editors for BSECS Criticks, but was not involved in the commissioning or composition of this review.