Visit to the Back-to-Backs
As part of the Children in Movement programme, we have been taking some of our young participants to visit one of our city's most important heritage sites, the Birmingham Back-to-Backs. If you haven't visited before, I'd definitely recommend it. Its a great way to learn more about the everyday lives of ordinary Brummies throughout recent history. Large communities of people who migrated to the city from different parts of the world also lived in these houses, and so the trip was especially useful for us in thinking about experiences of living in Birmingham as a migrant and how these have changed over time.
The first back-to-backs were built in the early 19th century as a cheap and space-efficient method of creating thousands of new houses to accommodate the city's rapidly expanding population due to growing industrialisation. Most were built in centre or inner city areas such as Digbeth, Ladywood, Handsworth, Aston, Small Heath and Highgate. Essentially, they are red brick terraced houses grouped around a small central courtyard. Around the edge of the courtyard were shared facilities such as toilets and a washing room. Built onto the back of each other, each house was only one room deep and spanned over two or three floors.
After being homes to several generations of families and workers over the years, in the 1960s the back-to-backs were declared unfit for habitation (though the ground floors were still used as shop fronts and taxi ranks) and many residents were moved to new council housing estates. Gradually the back-to-backs were demolished to make way for the long rows of terraced housing that we know today.
Now restored and preserved as a museum by the National Trust, the back-to-backs on the corner of Hirst Street and Inge Street are the last to survive. The above photo shows the state that these houses had fallen into before restoration. A tour guide, whose own grand parents had lived in back-to-backs, showed us around the houses and told us about the residents that had lived there. Each of the houses has been preserved in the style of a particular time period, allowing us to see how conditions and lifestyles changed over time. Unlike most National Trust properties, the museum teaches us about the history of the lives of ordinary working people as opposed to the royal and aristocratic.
The tour guide first took us back to 1840, to a house that had been rented by a fairly well-to-do Jewish family. At this time around the Hirst Street area there had been a large Jewish population, most of them tailors. Often courts of houses were occupied by people of the same trade, which often also meant of the same heritage – for example we learnt that in Digbeth there were whole courts occupied by Irish families, and other courts by Italians, whose trade was barometer-making. Other courts though were made of up workers of all different trades (Birmingham was known as 'the city of a thousands trades', but in reality there were over two thousand). The picture below shows a workstation in the bedroom of the family's two sons, who were apprentices in making parts for clocks. With only candlelight available at this time, they needed all the natural light they could get.
The second house we were taken to next door was set in 1870. This had been rented by a family whose trade was glassmaking. They were less wealthy and with a much larger family – 10 children in total! Overcrowding was a huge issue in these tiny houses. The tour guide told us how one bedroom in this house was shared between 5 children and 2 lodgers (with only a hanging sheet to separate them), and family members would stay out of the house as much as possible during the day as there was simply not enough space for all. There was also the problem of bugs which bit your skin and were difficult to get rid of. However, by this time gas lamps had been invented (which mainly used whale oil) and were even installed through piping fixtures.
The final house we were showed around skipped forward to 1930, where electricity was now used for lighting and where there were lots of household accessories that were more familiar and recognisable to us.
For our final stop we were taken to a workshop that had been owned by a tailor called George Saunders, which we found particularly interesting for our Children in Movement project. George had moved to Birmingham from St. Kitts in the Caribbean in the 1950s, and had made this back-to-back house his textile studio and tailors shop in the 1970s. Everything in the property had been preserved just as he had left it, at his request, and we weren't allowed to touch or disturb any of it.
George was the last person to leave the property before it became a museum, which he did in 2001. Sadly he died two years ago whilst in his 80s, but an oral history recording still remains (recorded by Helen Lloyd who trained us in oral histories). In it he talks about his experiences of applying for a job in Birmingham in the early days of his arrival here from St.Kitts and the racist attitudes he initially faced.
I found the whole visit extremely valuable. It helped us to better understand the history of our city - how people lived throughout time, what trades they worked, how the city was organised, and where people migrated from and why. We hope that the stories we collect through Children in Movement will play an equally important role in preserving people's histories for future generations.