The memory of James Montgomery plays a prominent part in the public life of Sheffield during his sixty year’s residence here.
If you’ve never heard of him, take a walk to Sheffield Cathedral and look at his granite monument, with bronze statue by John Bell, moved from the overgrown General Cemetery in 1971.
Between 1792, when James Montgomery first set foot in Sheffield, becoming the assistant to Joseph Gales, of the Sheffield Register, and 1854, the year in which he died, vast changes took place.
Montgomery’s youth was a troubled and stormy period. His mature age was active, useful, benevolent, and made glorious by the development of his poetic genius. His old age had been still useful; beneficent on a large scale; honoured by all; and shedding a lustre on Sheffield, by investing it with popular hymns.
James Montgomery was the eldest son of the Rev. John Montgomery. He was born in 1771, the eldest of three sons. His father was a Moravian minister; at the time of his birth stationed at Irvine, in Ayrshire.
When he was five, his parents moved to Gracehill, Co. Antrim, and in his sixth year was placed in the Moravian School at Fulbeck, near Leeds, his family becoming missionaries to slaves in Barbados and Tobago.
Montgomery started writing poetry when he was ten-years-old and was destined for the church. However, after leaving Fulbeck Seminary in 1787, he ended up working in shops at Mirfield, near Wakefield, and later at Wath upon Dearne, near Rotherham.
A journey to London, with a hope of finding a publisher for his youthful poems, ended in failure; and in 1792, he was glad to leave Wath for Sheffield to join Mr. Gales, an auctioneer, bookseller and printer of the Sheffield Register newspaper, as his assistant.
In 1794, Mr. Gales left England or Germany to avoid a political prosecution. Montgomery took the Sheffield Register in hand, changed its name to the Sheffield Iris, and continued to edit it for 31 years. He was imprisoned twice; first for reprinting therein a song in commemoration of the Fall of the Bastille, and secondly for giving an account of a riot in Sheffield.
The editing of his paper, the composition and publication of his poems and hymns, the delivery of lectures on poetry in Sheffield and at the Royal Institute, London, and the earnest advocacy of Foreign Missions and the Bible Society in many parts of the country, gave great variety.
Montgomery was particularly associated with humanitarian causes such as the campaigns to abolish slavery and to end the exploitation of child chimney sweeps. He died in his sleep at the Mount, Sheffield, in 1854, and was honoured with a public funeral.
As a poet, Montgomery stands well to the front; and as a writer of 400 hymns, many still in use, he ranks in popularity with Wesley, Watts, Doddridge, Newton and Cowper.
As well as the monument carrying his name, there are various streets named after Montgomery and a Grade II-listed drinking fountain on Broad Lane. The meeting hall of the Sunday Schools Union (now known as The Montgomery), situated in Surrey Street, was named in his honour in 1886.