Born in Irvine 250 years ago, James Montgomery was the son of a minister, that went on to make his mark as a poet, journalist and the nation’s most prolific hymn writer, praised by the likes of Byron.

Having lived in Scotland, Ireland and England, he eventually settled into the occupation of a journalist and newspaper proprietor in Sheffield. He began as a radical, serving time in jail for publishing seditious material, but over time became rooted in a more conservative outlook.

Between 1771 and 1776, James Montgomery’s parents, brother and sister, attempted to set up a church of the Moravian Brethren at the Braid Close in the Halfway district of the town (later renamed Montgomery Street in his honour).

Dr Adam James Smith, who has been in Irvine preparing plans to celebrate Montgomery’s 250th anniversary, explained to the Times his significance to Irvine:

“James Montgomery was born in Irvine and was there for the first five or six years of his life. 1771-76, his family were part of the Moarvian church. The Asda in Irvine is actually built on where Montgomery’s house was.

“They moved to another community in Ireland, then they moved to a community on the outskirts of Leeds, that’s where his story begins.

“Growing up as a teenager near Sheffield, he wrote in his memoirs that he grew up reading a lot of Robert Burns, that he was a big fan of romantic poetry and he wanted to be a poet and writer so he ran away from home when he was in his late teens to London to write but got rejected by everyone.

“Then tried to pitch his novel to somebody and they wouldn’t accept it because it had too much swearing in it.

“He came back to Sheffield, worked in a bakery in Wakefield, and during that time he would write hymns for his local church, and eventually it would be known for that in later life.

“Eventually he applied for a job as a copy boy at a local newspaper, the Sheffield Register, that was edited by Joseph Gales, he was in a lot of hot water all the time for criticising government and radical dissent - the paper was big on advocating for more representation out of Westminster.”


James Montgomery wrote over 400 hymns that are still sung today.

James Montgomery wrote over 400 hymns that are still sung today.


The name Montgomery is often associated with the land-owning Viscount from Beith, however the meaning behind Montgomery Street in Irvine takes a more radical position as the street was named after James Montgomery, a poet that found himself in jail for writing critically about the government at the time.

Dr Smith continued: “In 1795, Joseph Gales was charged with treason, and ran away to America, and the newspaper collapsed, but it was Montgomery that raised the funds to relaunch a new paper called the Sheffield Iris, where he carried on the radical dissenting position, until he himself was arrested for treason and libel.

“Although he was eventually charged, for a poem that he proved he didn’t write, but he was charged and kept in York prison on two occasions.”

Possibly the best known of Montgomery’s hymns is “Angels from the Realms of Glory”, still popular almost 150 years after it was written (and published in the Sheffield ‘Iris’) in 1816.

Aged 70, he re-visited Irvine, and was presented with the freedom of the burgh. When he died in Sheffield in 1854, the cortege and procession took over four hours to pass by.

Dr Smith is now looking to connect with Irvine’s historians to mark the 250th anniversary of Montgomery’s birth.

He added: “He wrote over 400 hymns, in his later life he avoided any sort of controversy, he even became a politician, he became an upstanding figure, the full Paul McCartney!”