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.


4 thoughts on “Mount Misery

  1. I think Showell’s Dictionary was published in 1885, and his figures are a little different to those quoted by Thomas Attwood, one of the new borough’s first members of parliament, alongside the merchant Joshua Scholefield, to the House of Commons in March 1834.

    Attwood, during what I think was a military debate, highlighted the plight of the Birmingham paupers. He stated that he had a list of persons employed by the Overseers of the Parish of Birmingham in wheeling sand and breaking stones….61 men divided into 4 classes, unmarried, married, married with one child, and married with 4 and above children; Receiving 1s, 1s4d, 1s8d, and 2s per day.

    They had to wheel a barrow of 1.25 cwt of sand for 3/4 miles uphill, and then wheel it back again. They were required to do this 16 times a day making 24m, for the reward of a shilling. It is difficult to read in the newspaper copy, but I believe he rated this ask way above military marching. He described these men as button makers and brass founders who would be used to working in a 30ft square building.

    I can only assume that Showell is tongue in cheek when saying that the pauper problem… “was a continual puzzle to the Overseers, until someone, wise in his generation…”

    An interesting anecdote to this comes from February 1828 when a sand wheeler was charged with neglecting to provide for his wife and family. He was sentenced to 21 days at the house of correction to be kept at hard labour at the treadmill. He exclaimed “well that will be as easy as sand wheeling.” His sentence was increased to a month.


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