Mount Misery

Getting by in 19th century Birmingham could be hard.  A town of great innovation and opportunity it was also subject as much as any other to the vagaries of fluctuating economic fortunes and depressions.  Small trades could be impacted by changing fashions and new inventions. Another factor, particularly during the first half of the century, was the lull in heavy international conflicts, which caused a drop in the demand for guns and metal arms, for which Birmingham was a leading manufacture. In those days people suffering from poverty could become dependent on the poor rate. This was before the days of the Victorian workhouses. There was a workhouse in Birmingham, but it was not run under the sort of system more familiar in ‘Oliver’, and most of the poor were given ‘out relief’, a very small amount of money and often in return for otherwise unpaid labour.  This piece from Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham explains. Pushing men, especially young men, into such backbreaking work would have been intended as a way of preventing violent unrest at a time of great deprivation.

Mount Misery.– At the close of the great war, which culminated at Waterloo, it was long before the blessings of peace brought comfort to the homes of the poor. The first effects of the sheathing of the sword was a collapse in prices of all kinds, and a general stagnation of trade, of which Birmingham made prosperous through the demands for its guns, &c., felt the full force. Bad trade was followed by bad harvests, and the commercial history of the next dozen years is but one huge chronicle of disaster, shops and mills closing fast, and poverty following faster. How to employ hundreds of able-bodied men dependent on the rates, was a continual puzzle to the Overseers, until someone, wise in his generation, hit upon the plan of paying the unfortunates to wheel sand from the bank then in front of Key Hill House up to the canal side, a distance of 1 1/2 miles, the payment being at the rate of one penny per barrow load. This fearful ‘labour test’ was continued for a long time, and when we reckon that each man would have to wheel his barrow backwards and forwards for nearly 20 miles to earn a shilling, moving more than a ton of sand in the process, we cannot wonder at the place receiving such a woeful name as Mount Misery.


William Scholefield: Birmingham’s First Mayor

On May 4th, 2017, the people of the West Midlands will have the opportunity to elect a Mayor. This is different to the usual appointment of Lord Mayor, which does not fall to a public vote. Birmingham’s last elected mayor was James Smith, who took office in 1895. The first mayor was William Scholefield, who was granted his position on December 28th, 1838. Scholefield was the son of the Birmingham MP Joshua Scholefield (who also held a Birmingham ‘first’, being one of the town’s first MPs along with Thomas Attwood) and would later become an MP himself.

Screenshot 2017-03-29 at 20.46.50 - Edited (1)

William Scholefield (c) New York Public Library

Scholefield’s term of office should have represented a triumph for Birmingham as the town celebrated the institution of its first municipal corporation. But instead he found himself at the centre of controversy at a time of immense social tensions. Some of the difficulties were of Scholefield’s own doing. At the time of the first town council elections he put himself forward as returning officer. That is, he oversaw the counting of votes, a role which was supposed to fall to the High Bailiff of the town. Scholefield had been High Bailiff until October 1838, at which time local button manufacturer James Turner who held that position. When the local Tory party, the Loyal and Constitutional Association, began a legal challenge against the legitimacy of the wholly Radical town council, Scholefield’s dodgy appointment gave real momentum to the anti-corporation campaign.

By the summer of 1839, Birmingham’s first town council had become more generally unpopular within the local community. Chartism was becoming increasingly popular, but the town councillors had allied themselves with another political agitation, the Anti-Corn Law League. This created a really strong line of tension that would erupt into violence in July, 1839. Once again it was Scholefield who found himself at the centre of the controversy.  Groups of Chartists had been gathering in the Bull Ring twice daily and creating something of a disturbance. Shopkeepers complained about the nuisance and Scholefield sought support from the magistrates. A dispersal notice was posted in the Bull Ring on May 10th, but protesters took no notice. Nightly, torchlit parades were held in the streets. The council had been given responsibility for policing and keeping the peace, but they had no money to manage this. Scholefield and a magistrate went to London and requested support from the Home Office. On July 4th 1839 a body of Metropolitan Police arrived in the Bull Ring with instructions to disperse the crowds and arrest any Chartist speakers. What ensued was what can only be described as a mass brawl. The protesters broke the staves of their flags and banners, using them as weapons against the police; railings around the nearby parish church, St. Martin’s, were pulled up for the same purpose. Among the many injuries two of the London Met officers were stabbed and left fighting for their lives. The Riot Act was read and Dragoons from nearby barracks raced in to break up the melee. Over subsequent weeks numerous skirmishes broke out between the London police and locals. On July 15th, following claims of police violence against working men, shops in the Bull Ring were looted and torched in a riot that shocked the whole country. As a result three men and a youth were transported to Australia. They were lucky to have their original death sentence overturned.

Although the first Mayor of Birmingham had a difficult year in office, nevertheless he oversaw the introduction of the town’s own magistracy and law court – previously there had been a total dependency on the county bench in Warwick. Birmingham also got its first coroner, Dr. Birt Davies. Again the previous coroner, though a local man, had been appointed by the magistrates in Warwick. Even with all the difficulties of political differences and the very real possibility that the council might be found to have no legitimate role, Scholefield and the other municipal men made an important step towards independence from the county and showed admirable tenacity in the face of intense opposition.