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.