Robert MONTGOMERY, Clergyman and Poet
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Early Life in Bath

Robert MONTGOMERY was baptised on 8th November 1807 at Weston parish church, near Bath the natural son of Robert GOMERY and Elizabeth Medows BOYCE. Why he was baptised as Montgomery is not clear, but possibly this name was occasionally used by his father on the stage; later in his life it did lead to criticism that he had assumed a more aristocratic name than the one given to him.

Robert Jnr. was educated at Dr Arnot's school in Bath. His first efforts with the written word began when, aged about seventeen years, he founded a weekly paper at Bath called The Inspector, which had a brief existence. The Stage Coach written in 1827 was his first poem; followed in the same year by The Age Reviewed, a satire on contempory mankind. In 1828 he wrote The Omnipresence of the Deity which so captured the public imagination and religious sentiment of the time that it ran to eight editions in as many months. Later editions contained a portrait of the author looking youthful and with an open collar, gazing upwards - immitating a well known pose of Byron. The press of the day was extravagant in it's praise, one writer likening Montgomery to Milton. Also in 1828 he dedicated a volume of blank verse to Sharon TURNER, entitled A Universal Prayer; Death; Vision of Heaven; Vision of Hell. There followed The Puffiad (1830) and Satan, or Intellect without God (1830). The last work found favour with the evangelical movement, and ran through more editions than The Omnipresence of the Deity, and gave Robert Montgomery more contemporary fame than the publication of any poet since the death of Byron.

Robert Montgomery 1807 - 1855

Criticism of his Poetry

Thomas MACAULAY (1800 - 59), the first Baron of Rothley, English historian and poet, severely criticised Robert Montgomery. In March 1830 he wrote to Macvey NAPIER; "There is a wretched poetaster of the name Robert Montgomery, who has written some volumes of detestable verses on religious subjects, which by mere puffing in magazines and newspapers have had an immense sale, and some of which are now in their 11th or 12th editions...........I really think we ought to try what effect satire will have upon this nuisance, and I doubt whether we can ever find a better opportunity." Macauleys criticism of Montgomery appeared in the "Edinburgh Review" of April 1830. According to the Dictionary of National Biography "the article is conspicuous neither for good taste nor fairness." Montgomery replied contemptuosly "The reviewer is, we believe, still alive, and from time to time employs himself in making mouths at distinguished men. Most heartily do we wish him a nobler office than that of being the hired assassin of a bigoted review." It is said he thought of libel action. Despite the criticism the sale of Montgomery's poems remained unaffected, and The Omnipresence of the Deity ran to its twenty eighth edition in 1858, and Satan to eight editions by 1842.

Academic and Religious Lives

Robert matriculated from Lincoln College, Oxford on 18th February 1830, aged 22 years; he obtained his B.A. in fourth class honours (Oxford) in 1833, and M.A. (Oxford) in 1838. He continued writing poetry, and in 1831 Oxford appeared which was ridiculed at Oxford, but nowhere else. In 1832 he wrote The Messiah dedicated to Queen Adelaide, who acknowledged the compliment by presenting him with a medal; and in 1833 Woman, the Angel of Life, and Other Poems.

On 3rd May 1835 Robert Montgomery was ordained deacon at St. Asaph, and for the next twelve months served as a curate at the Church of St. John the Baptist in Whittington, Shropshire where he was well liked and left to universal regret in 1836 to take charge of the episcopal church of St. Jude in Glasgow. As could be expected he turned out to be a successful preacher and wrote many tracts on theological subjects. In October 1843 he became minister of Percy Chapel, an episcopal chapel in Fitzroy Square, in the parish of St. Pancras in London, the area where his father grew up. In the same year Robert married Rachel Catherine Andrews McKenzie, the youngest daughter of Alexander Douglas McKenzie of Bursledon, Hampshire. Robert and Rachel had one child, Jessie Anne Douglas Montgomery who was born on the 6th August 1851, and baptised on the 7th September at the Old Church, St Pancras, London.

Robert Montgomery died in Brighton on 3rd December 1855. His widow, Rachel Montgomery, died in 1882 in Exeter, Devon.

Harsh Historical Comment

The Dictionary of National Biography seems somewhat harsh in parts of its final paragraph on Robert Montgomery - "With an unfortunate facility in florid versification Montgomery combined no genuinely poetic gift. Macaulay, in trying to anticipate the office of time, only suceeded in rescuing him from the oblivion to which he was properly destined. His style of preaching is said to have resembled that of his poetical effusions. His manners, in spite of his vanity, are said to have been engaging". Their assessment becomes a little more generous with "he was generous and his congregations were much attached to him. He did a great deal to promote the welfare of the Brompton Consumption Hospital, and devoted much of his later life to similar causes."

Criticism also arose after Roberts death over his use of Montgomery as a surname. In Notes and Queries, a 19th century journal, dated 19 April 1856 a friend of Robert's, James Darling of 81 Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields felt it necessary to point out to his detractors that Montgomery was the name Robert was baptised with, and not an assumed surname. He also stated "Having enjoyed the personal friendship of Mr. Montgomery for many years, I hope I may be permitted to say that he was most undeserving of such attacks. It has become a fashion to consider Mr. Macaulay's satirical Essay as in some degree descriptive of him, but the readers of his works have formed a very different estimate. The memory of his guileless simplicity and generosity of character, ready wit and deep religious feeling, will long be cherished by his friends."

Jessie Douglas Montgomery

The archives of the Janus Library, Cambridge hold the Montgomery Memorial Fund papers (BEMS 32: 1914-18). The Fund was established to erect a memorial tablet and fund a scholarship, in memory of Jessie Douglas Montgomery (died 1918), pioneer of adult education in Exeter.

From the Exeter University Foundation website:-

Benefactors of the Past - Jessie Douglas Montgomery

A marble tablet in Exeter Cathedral bears witness to the tireless efforts of a woman who, until her death in 1918, strove to make available to others the opportunity to study. Although, as a woman, she could not herself obtain a degree, Miss Montgomery worked unceasingly for thirty years to bring university-level education to Exeter. She was granddaughter of a famous theatrical clown and daughter of an early Victorian poet but was raised in the household of her uncle, Canon Cook of Exeter Cathedral. In Victorian Britain, university education was a rare privilege available only at a tiny number of universities. In response to growing demand, Cambridge set up a Board of Extra-mural Studies. Exeter applied for its first course of lectures in 1886 and Jessie Montgomery was one of the small group to enter and pass the exams which followed. She became secretary of the Exeter University Extension Committee in 1888. Over the next five years, three Acts made available the 'penny-rate' and the 'whisky money' duty on beer and spirits for an expansion in education. Jessie Montgomery presented a scheme to develop Exeter's Schools of Art & Science together with the university extension courses into a University Extension College. Once it was successfully launched, she turned her attention to teacher training, the co-operative movement and social-welfare facilities for young women in the city and, during the First World War, for soldiers' families. Jessie Montgomery House, opened as a Hall of Residence in 1964, honours her memory.

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Dictionary of National Biography
The Concise Dictionary of National Biography, OUP 1992
Crockfords Clerical Directory
Oxford University Archives
Cambridge University Archives
Notes and Queries, Vols.1,2,&3 1856
Exeter University Foundation website
Last revised: 21 March 2006
Linda Hansen 2000-2006