On a wet November afternoon, I paid a visit with my family to the “Birmingham Back to Backs” in the heart of the City.
The Back to Backs, also known as Court 15 at 50 -54 Inge Street and 55-63 Hurst Street Birmingham
Now run and managed by the National Trust, they are the last surviving court of back to back houses in Birmingham and are an example of thousands of similar houses that were built across the country to accommodate the rapidly increasing population of Britain’s expanding industrial towns and cities.
A back to back house is literally just that, one house facing the street and one built directly behind it backing onto a courtyard, with just 4 inches of wall in between.
This tiny corner plot situated near to the city centre where Chinatown and the wholesale markets district exist today, would have accommodated over 400 people in cramped and crowded living conditions in the 19th century.
These houses were fortunate in that they were saved from demolition because the front buildings were occupied by shops with long leases. In 1988 they were granted Grade II listed building status and the buildings were researched and recorded, before being restored by the Birmingham Conservation Trust.
Now restored each of the four houses is decorated and furnished in different eras, 1850s, late 1800s, 1930s and 1970s.
Our tour guide Wesley was indeed a tour de force and spoke for over an hour and a half about the families who lived in each of the houses over the years. As a child he himself had lived in similar back to back courts and his personal recollections and anecdotes brought to life the houses and the impoverished living conditions of their former occupants.
The first house was occupied in the 1850s by a Jewish family named Levy whose family came from Eastern Europe. Mr Levy was an outworker for the clock and watch industry specialising in clock hands, examples of which are on display.
Fizzing tallow candles add to the experience of the Levy family home. Note the table set for Shabbat dinner on Friday
The bedroom complete with half tester bed…the occupants of this house were quite well off!
The children’s bedroom was shared with Mr Levy’s workshop under the eaves
Next to the children’s beds is Mr Levy’s workbench sited by the window to maximise the light,
Bedroom fires were very rarely lit
Beginning in the 16th century Birmingham was transformed from a small market town to an industrial city and due to its central location, good transport links and natural resources, it grew rapidly.
Birmingham gained a worldwide reputation as a powerhouse of manufacturing and invention and Matthew Boulton and James Watt with other members of the Lunar Society who met at nearby Soho House were at the forefront of pioneering technologies and commerce.
Birmingham became known as the “City of a Thousand Trades” and the “Toyshop of Europe”. The Jewellery Quarter was the home to the production of pens, medals, and coins, cap badges, pins and metal toys as well as jewellery.
Even today the “Quarter” still produces over 40% of the handmade jewellery in the UK and is home to the worlds largest Assay Office, which hallmarks around 12 million items a year. The assay mark for Birmingham is the anchor and our guide explained its origin. Matthew Boulton was staying at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in London’s Strand when who should adopt which hallmark symbol was discussed…it appears that it was determined by the toss of a coin and Birmingham landed the anchor whilst Sheffield adopted the Crown.
The second house on the tour was occupied by the Oldfield family and their lodging tenants in the late 1800’s.
The Oldfields were glassworkers and produced glass eyes for dolls, stuffed animals and even humans!
A case full of glass eyes!
Lodgers were commonplace in these houses as they helped to pay the rent. Four people in one bed was not unusual and a flimsy bedsheet was the only privacy afforded to a female lodger in a room full of men
A black lead range the only source of domestic heating, for cooking and hot water
A “rag rug” at the hearth made out of remnants of cloth from the ragbag
Our guide explained that when the Back to Backs were built there was no running water available and all water had to be drawn from a well situated near the Bull Ring about a quarter of a mile away. This was usually the job of the children. Water would be brought back by bucket and the only hot water available would be that boiled in a kettle on the range.
The tin bath sits outside the bay window
Cleanliness was minimal with the tin bath brought indoors once a week, placed by the fire and filled with hot water boiled on the range. The father of the house would have the first bath and then the rest of the family followed in turn using the same water. It is thought that the expression “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” originates from this practise!
Likewise sanitation was basic with communal toilets in the courtyard shared by all the residents. These privies were not a place to visit during the night hence the number of chamber pots hidden under the beds!
The Brewhouse in the courtyard
The brewhouse was a building used by all the families in the court for washing laundry. Often run by a self appointed woman, our guide said that you dared not miss your turn! It was also the place which would be used to brew beer and the “copper” washtub under which a small fire heated the water could swiftly be commandeered by one of the men wanting to brew up!
The copper in the brewhouse
Naturally disease was prevalent in these courts with so many people living in squalid and overcrowded conditions. Joseph Chamberlain (father of Neville) became Birmingham’s Mayor in 1873 and it was his lifelong ambition to improve the lives of working people. Under his leadership the City became an international model for municipal socialism and during his tenure clean water and gas was supplied to many people, public board schools were built and slum clearances were begun.
The third house on the tour moves forward to the 1930s, a period of high unemployment and recession. Its occupants were Henry Mitchell and his wife and four children.
A savings money box supplied by the Birmingham Municipal Bank where money can be put in but only the bank can unlock it!
A stone hot water bottle on the bed provided some comfort… and a stick by the bed for protection… to kill cockroaches that would crawl over the ceiling!
Faded floral wallpaper gives some cheerful decoration
Before visiting the final house on the tour, we were allowed through the 4 inch walls which divided the back to backs, to see a room overlooking the street which was rented out unfurnished by the City Council. Amazingly, it was still lived in until the 1960s.
The last house and into the 1970s!
George Saunders emigrated to England in 1958 from St Kitts in the West Indies. As a tailor he sought work but the racial prejudices existing at that time made life in the city very harsh for George. Eventually he opened his own bespoke tailors shop in 1977 and continued trading until 2001.
A box of George’s patterns remain in an upstairs bedroom, which judging by the wallpaper, once belonged to a child.
Close up of the cowboy wallpaper now made fashionable again by Cath Kidson
Brown paper patterns for his suits still hang on the walls by an old sewing machine
Wire mannequins are stacked up on the stairwell
The shop front still retains all of George’s cloth samples and telephone!
George built a thriving business in this shop with clients including the wardrobe department of the Hippodrome theatre next door, as well as some more unlikely clients! In his time he had made military uniforms for both Colonel Gaddafi and Idi Amin from this shop!
Our guide pointed out that George had worked with the trust to preserve his shop with all his tailoring paraphernalia. Sadly only two weeks ago George had died and there was an obituary posted up in the front window as the last occupant of the Back to Backs.
Exiting through the gift shop we returned to present day Birmingham having had an eye opening tour of some 200 years of Birmingham’s social history. Access is by guided tours only see National Trust website for more information.
Oh and finally if you are looking for a somewhere unusual to stay, you can now book one of the Back to Back houses for your stay in the City… and no…you don’t have to use the outside toilet!