Mount Misery, now there’s a place-name to conjure with, what happened there to earn such a sinister name? Was a murder committed there, could it have been that somebody died of natural causes there or maybe a poor loan traveller became lost in a Dartmoor mist there?
So where did actual place-name – Mount Misery come from? It’s more likely that the name refers to the fertility or profitability of the actual land. The actual enclosure belonged to the old Fox Tor Farm for which the Duchy granted first lease in 1807 and throughout its history the farm was used for both grazing and growing crops. Eden Phillpotts gives a good overview of the farm and its short existence:
“A group of fallen walls and perished outbuildings, of which no more than foundations remain, mark the grey spot in the desert of green where once stood Fox Tor Farm. Respectable apparent age distinguished these fragments and the weathered and shattered entrances, the empty joist-holes and fretted casements suggest antiquity. Yet one hundred years ago this place had but newly sprung into existence. Its entire life, its erection and desertion, its prosperity and downfall, were crowded within the duration of little more than half a century.”, p.2.
In many cases the early Dartmoor enclosures had to be cleared of rocks and/or ‘spaded’ which was basically burning and pairing the ground prior to cultivation. In the early 1800s the so-called ‘improvers’ were working under the idea that if farmed properly the moorland wastes could be ‘tamed’ in such a way as to return a good profit which in most cases just resulted in ruin. It is with the word, “ruin”, that the answer to the name Mount Misery lies because any land which was unproductive was considered a failure and so names were given to them which would reflect this fact. Field lists some examples in his book; Starvation Hill, Never Gains, Famish Acre, Carry Nothing and Granite Piece, all of which suggest poor, unproductive land as is the case with Mount Misery, 1989, p.276. There are two specific theories as to what went wrong at Mount Misery, Hemery notes the following:
“The labour involved in building this wall corner and gateway must, in the inclement weather to which the place is exposed, have been a punishing task – likewise the spading and taming of the ground here in an attempt to grow crops: hence the depressing epithet ‘Mount Misery’ attaching to the place“. p.355.
It is probably worth noting that when Hemery mentions the exposed location of Mount Misery that the spot stands at a height of 452m and affords no shelter what so ever. Therefore when the wind and rain comes across the bare hillside it could clearly be miserable on the mount. The other theory comes from Stanbrook which is that:
“The area at the north eastern boundary corner of the farm is known as Mount Misery… The area was apparently named Mount Misery by a Scottish sheep farmer who grazed sheep here, and who did not do too well. This may have been Scotsman Mr James Lamb, or one of his shepherds, who grazed Scottish Blackface sheep here in the 1880s“. p.45.
Crossing was always a man for using place-names where ever possible but for some reason in this book of 1892 he gives no mention of Mount Misery, the Mount Misery Cross is simply described as being at the, “eastern corner of the newtake“. But by the time he published ‘ Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor in 1909 he was acknowledging the fact that the cross stood at Mount Misery, p.464, could this mean that the name was only given to the spot sometime between The late 1880s and 1909? Page in his book published in 1895 also simply describes the cross as being, “in the eastern corner of the deserted newtake“, p.260, again no mention of Mount Misery? Additionally there is certainly no mention of the name on the early Ordnance Survey map of 1888 either.
The other item of interest is that Mount Misery was a point on an ancient trans-moor route which is thought to have been used by travellers carrying barley or its by-products, hence its name the Maltern Way. This old track used many of the twelve ancient stone crosses that lay dotted around this part of the moor as waymarkers, the cross on Mount Misery being one of them
Crossing, W. 1990 Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor, Peninsula Press, Newton Abbot.
Field, J. 1989 English Field Names, Sutton Publishing, Gloucester.
Hemery, E. 1983 High Dartmoor, Hale, London.
Page, J. Ll. W. 1895. An Exploration of Dartmoor. London: Seeley & Co.
Phillpotts, E. 1920. The Misers Money. London: William Heineman
Stanbrook, E. 1994 Dartmoor Forest Farms, Devon Books, Exeter.