Thursday 26th June found us in the University of Sheffield’s Special Collections Reading Room – just a couple of volunteers from the chapel, some Friends of Wincobank Hill, two representatives from Montgomery Hall and a video camera – watch this space. We had come to find out more about the link between Mary-Anne Rawson and Sheffield’s Victorian hero James Montgomery, and specifically their work together in the campaign against slavery. What we found made us stop and think hard.
This beautifully illustrated and printed album, the equivalent of the modern day coffee table book, seems at first to give a sweetened picture of slavery as something distant, overseas and, with a little help from good British Christians, easy to recover from. However, opening the pages and reading on, we found the most shocking contemporary newspaper accounts accompanied by first hand statements of barbaric treatment and inhumane policy. That such a tastefully designed book could contain such small print dynamite suggests a very clever strategy to change attitudes by infiltrating the drawing rooms of the rich and powerful.
We discovered that our Mary-Anne had held James Montgomery in high esteem as both a friend of the family and as a role model. He was well known at the time as a radical newspaper editor, poet and writer of many popular hymns including Angels from the Realms of Glory. Early in his career he had been suspected of being sympathetic towards the French Revolution, convicted of seditious libel and had served two terms of imprisonment in York Castle. Mary-Anne’s father, Joseph Read had considered his trial unjust and believed that he had been sentenced as an example to others. He paid Montgomery’s legal fees, just one of the acts of generosity which was to lead to his own economic ruin.
Mary-Anne was herself a skilled writer and editor, collecting from far and wide literary and financial contributions to the causes she supported . We were both moved and impressed by her Memorial to Montgomery – a huge handwritten journal, the size of a family Bible, filled with recollections and anecdotes about her own family and their esteemed friend. Interspersed with the most delicate of drawing and watercolours, it brings alive the lively and passionate woman who we better know as the elderly lady in the lace bonnet with whose photograph hangs on the wall in Upper Wincobank Chapel. She writes in the front cover that the Memorial is only intended for the family, but after coming into the possession of her nephew Liberal MP Henry Joseph Wilson, and passing down several generations of the Wilson family it was finally placed, with other papers, at the University of Sheffield, in an act of public generosity for which we are indebted.