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JUDITH BAILEY SLAGLE Literary Activism: James Montgomery, Joanna Baillie, and the Plight ofBritain’s Chimney Sweeps N 6 FEBRUARY 1824, JOANNA BAILLIE NOTIFIED HER FRIEND WALTER vy Scott that Scottish poet James Montgomery, then living in Sheffield, England, had written to ask her for a poem on the plight of chimney sweeps, also known as climbing boys. A committee there was at work on a collection ofpoems to “engage the Public” to “sympathize with their mis­ eries” entitled The Chimney-Sweeper’s Friend, and Climbing-Boy’s Album (1824 and 1825). But Baillie, deciding the subject was too grim and too im­ portant for a simple poem, had already responded to Montgomery on 14 January 1824: . . . you must pardon me for being so presumptuous as to say that po­ etry, even from your pen or that of any of our most distinguished Poets, would not be so useful to them as a plain statement of their miserable lot in prose, accompanied with a simple, reasonable plan for sweeping chimneys without them. . . . There is a jealousy in peoples [sic] minds regarding every thing that is told them in verse, & or every thing which in that garb attempts to work upon the feelings.1 A practical thinker well acquainted with the London scientific community, Baillie understood that the public often mistrusted the sagacity ofpoets. So instead of a poem, she sent the editor something else, as she explained in her subsequent letter to Scott: I. Wellcome Library MS 5608 ££43—44, partially printed in Memoirs ofthe Life and Writings ofJames Montgomery, ed. J. Holland and J. Everett (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1853), 4:60-61. SiR, 51 (Spring 2012) 59 60 JUDITH BAILEY SLAGLE I received some time since an application which amused me a good deal, from Montgomery the Poet in behalfofa committee at Sheffield for suppressing the use of Climbing Boys for sweeping chimneys, that I might send them a Poem on that subject to be added to a collection ofsimilar poems. . . . Instead ofpoetry I have sent to the committee in plain simple prose an account of the old Scotch way of cleaning chim­ neys with a rope & a lead & a parcel ofbrooms & brushes tied to it, as a far better thing. For all the verses on earth will never make them give up the old mode of sweeping till they get one in its place nearly as easy to themselves and as cheap. Is this old way still in use with you or do climbing chimney sweepers universally prevail?2 Baillie’s letter also underscored the conflict in using verse for reform, a conflict with which Scott agreed. This essay, then, aims to combine a fac­ tual history of chimney sweep legislation with the activist literature in­ volved in hastening its execution. Poet and social activist James Montgomery (1771—1854) was born at Irvine in Ayrshire to an original Scottish family who had settled in Ulster. His father adopted the tenets of the Moravians, becoming a minister in the 1760s, and sent his son James to school at the Moravian settlement near Leeds in 1777; in 1783 his parents went to Barbados as missionaries. James Montgomery proved a liberal thinker early on and found his tenure with the Moravians stifling, so he ran away in 1787. He eventually returned to his teachers but soon left for London with manuscripts in hand. In 1792 Montgomery became a clerk for the Sheffield Register, and his career as an activist writer was launched.3 As a poet and a reform writer, Montgomery authored the popular Christmas carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory” and “had the distinction of going to prison twice for printing material that was unpopular with the authorities”; as later editor of the Sheffield Iris, he was determined to “do what was right.”4 Montgomery had written several book-length poems, including one on the Moravian mission to Greenland and another against slavery, but he is probably best remembered today for his hymns and for his fight against the deplorable condition of child chim­ ney sweeps. 2. The Collected Letters ofJoanna Baillic, 2 vols., ed. Judith Bailey Slagle (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999), 424. Further references to Baillie...


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