The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was first published at the end of the eighteenth century, and given that the Coronavirus crisis is giving too much time to read books, I thought I’d pick a daily word from it until I got bored…..
The dictionary defines this as “a man under sentence of transportation; alluding to the convicts at Woolwich, who are principally employed in wheeling barrows full of brick or dirt”. Another dictionary from the period defines this, as well as a wheelbarrow man, as being anyone sentenced to work maintaining the roads. I’m not sure why the definition seems limited to Woolwich, although there were prison ships, or hulks, that were moored there during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, so I imagine it’s that.
The surname Barrowman during the middle of the nineteenth century was nearly entirely limited to London and Essex (with the one exception being the Newcastle area), which might also explain the limited usage of the phrase outside of the capital.