Down Memory Lane to the Back to Backs

We welcomed a large number of visitors for Mac Joseph's talk on life in the Birmingham Back to Back houses on an unseasonably cold March evening.

Mac is well fitted to be a volunteer guide at the National Trust owned back to back houses in Birmingham, having spent his early life in one in Ladywood, so his series of archive photographs were accompanied by a lively commentary of anecdotes from someone who had first -hand experience of life in a back to back community.

For those who are unsure, back to back houses were just that - two houses built back to back with no windows or entrances to their rear. Built to low standards in the 1830s and 1840s, they were constructed in their thousands to house the growing industrial populations of our big cities. Birmingham had over 20,000; built at a density of 80 to an acre - 15 per acre would be regarded as high density today. Usually arranged around a courtyard in groups of about eight to ten, they came as 1-up + 1-down houses; with a single bedroom upstairs and a single living room downstairs and a scullery attached. A second variant of three storeys had two upstairs bedrooms. As built they had no running water, nor lighting. In the courtyard, they shared a single water standpipe and perhaps a couple of privies and wash houses. Very often, these small houses accommodated large families; eight would not be unusual plus, in many instances, a lodger. Add to that, the strong possibility that the husband might well be working from home (as a metal worker, button maker etc) and you can see that every inch of space would have had to be utilised.

In 1908 rents were 3/6d per week. Most were owned by private landlords and there was little in the way of state or local supervision when it came to repairs or security of tenure although, surprisingly, a licence was required to keep chickens. The meagre wages were barely sufficient to feed the family and pay the rent. Luxuries were few or non-existent. Curtains at the widows indicated a family of relative affluence; newspaper was not unusual. Life revolved around raising the family; the husband working long hours for meagre pay and the wife occupied with arduous domestic chores. Wash-days and hence use of the wash house had to be shared with your neighbours. If you missed your day, then it would be a week's wait until it was your turn again.

Despite a decision by national government as early as 1909 that back to backs were a most unsatisfactory form of accommodation and that no more should be built, the sheer scale of the problem meant that their total replacement would take until the early 1960s. In the intervening years, those remaining were improved. Gas lighting was installed by the 1890s, electricity by the 1930s. Water was plumbed in, allowing rudimentary cooking and washing facilities to be provided. Although an improvement, the basic structure of the houses still left much to be desired. Damp was rife, as was a general state of disrepair, brought about through landlords' reluctance to spend any money on them.

Yet those who lived in them still carry happy memories of comradeship and of a community spirit that is hard to find today. Some of our visitors to the meeting explained how everyone lived communally; whether sharing a cigarette with a neighbour in the courtyard, talking to friends as you toiled together in the wash house or, as children, playing games in the courtyard. Many regret the lost sense of community, which somehow could not survive relocation to the brave new world of new housing estates like Chelmsley Wood.

Roger Hockney
March 2013