Sunday, 1 May 2011

Birmingham Back to Backs

Yesterday, we found ourselves in Birmingham where we had decided to follow our team - The Sheffield Sharks basketball team - who were in the NBA finals (sadly they didn't win). Hubby decided to surprise me by booking us a tour of the National Trust Back to Back houses - somewhere I have been banging on about wanting to visit ever since they opened them.

The tour of the Back to Back houses - the last remaining courtyard of these in Birmingham starts outside the sweet shop on the corner.

Which used to be your favourite?

Lemon Kali was one of mine.

Back to back houses were very common in the north at the time of the industrial revolution when a huge influx of people from the countryside teemed into the city's looking for work. It's a period in history that I now find fascinating - but really hated at school! As well as telling the story of the population shift into the city, they also tell the story of the many immigrants into the city - another topic that I also find fascinating and heartbreaking.

I was allowed to take photos in the yard, but not in the houses. They have left one of the rooms in the actual state that the families would have lived in - and it is very grim. The houses that they lived in in the film "Angela's Ashes" would be a good indication of the filth and squalor that large families would have lived in here.


A lot of research has gone into the families that would have lived in these houses through time and the guide tells story's about them. The houses have one small room on each of the three floors. One of the families had 10 children and 2 lodgers making a total of 14 people in one tiny house.

The washroom outside was shared by 12 families and each woman would have her allotted time to do her washing. Once she had finished, she would often jump into the tub to have her bath, then use the water to bathe the rest of the family. It was often like sludge when they bathed the last child - usually the baby.

They had 3 privies to share between the families and these would have originally been "earth closets" - basically a hole where you deposited your waste, which got mixed with ash, then when they were pretty full, they would be shovelled out into the yard to await the "night soil man" who would collect it on a cart and sell it for fertilizer to the farmers. (Hope you were not eating!!).

The yard and houses look really pretty decked out with bunting for their WW2 week next week, but they would really have been vile, smelly places to live.


Its amazing to think that people still lived in them up until the mid 1960's.

I wondered what these women who lived in these houses who struggled on a daily basis to feed and keep a family warm would make of the fact that even though we now have a limitless choice of floor covering and bed linens available to us to buy, we still love the rag rugs and patchwork that they were forced to make for comfort. I think they would think that we were mad.




If you ever find yourself in Birmingham with time to spare, I would highly recommend a visit - but you do usually have to book in advance.

22 comments:

Louise said...

This is on my list of places to visit - spending so many weekends in Wolverhampton, it's a twenty minute train journey to Birmingham, but I never go there because I hate it! One day, I am going to visit the back to backs and a few other places I have on my list there! One day!

Thanks for sharing, I have enjoyed this post!

Rosie said...

We were lucky to be able to visit the Back to Backs a few years ago not long after they opened and I was fascinated with them not least because some of my ancestors lived in a courtyard in that area of Birmingham according to the 1851 census and they were gun part makers, nailmakers and ferrule makers. Have you been watching 'If Walls could Talk?' last night it was the history of the bedroom and some of it was filmed at the back to backs. Glad you enjoyed your visit - did you buy some sweets from the shop?

lazylol said...

We don't know how lucky we are, do we.

Fascinating post Diane. I love the history of these places and will add this to my 'to visit' list.

Food, Fun and Life in the Charente said...

What an interesting post, it is amazing how people used to cope under those conditions. I also used to hate history at school but I am now fascinated by it!! Diane

Elizabethd said...

I dont know if you saw Lucy Worsley's programme last night, but she showed us one of the back to back houses, and described how they lived. Unimaginable now. She interviewed a lady who had lived in one until she left home to get married.

Lisa said...

Shame about the basketball result but how thoughtful of Mr H to book you into a tour, he' sa diamond!
I've been enjoying the If Walls Could Talk series and these houses have featured on there a couple of times. They look fascinating.
Lisa x

diane b said...

That sounds a fascinating place to visit. It is hard to believe the conditions that some people had to endure.

topchelseagirl said...

Fascinating. I too saw these on If Walls Could Talk, which I am loving, the other night. x

Simone said...

It looks like a fascinating place to visit Diane. I have never heard of lemon kali but it looks like what we used to call lemonade powder down in London. x

Liz said...

Great post - very interesting! Love these kind of places - they give you a real feel for what conditions were like.
Liz

Mister D said...

Looks a great place to visit perhaps similar to Beamish ?

Little Blue Mouse said...

What an interesting place to visit.
I wondered how kali was spelt and now I know. We used to have the rainbow kind and I liked the fact that it made your tongue bleed if you had enough of it!

BusyLizzie said...

How interesting, it is somewhere I would love to see along with Mr Straws House in Worksop. have you been there? Lizzie

two bones and a bagle said...

Hi Diane that's on my list to visit - I too like social history and find it fascinating and like you didn't care much for history at school. Have you been to Mr Straw's House in Worksop - may be we could go together on our bloggy meet up. You do have to book though but it is fab. I used to get Kali from the corner shop near my Grandmas in twisty little triangle shaped bags.

Julia said...

I ought to be ashamed considering I find myself in Birmingham every working day and have not yet been to the back to backs - I would love to go though! Have you heard of the Black Country Museum at Dudley (west of Birmingham) - that's a whole village in similar style, with houses, shops, a church, a pub and even a fish & chip shop ..... which are to die for. And you probably would do (die that is) if you ate too many, as they're cooked in animal fat, but it's that that makes them so delicious - once in a blue moon doesn't hurt!! I digress though - I'm sure you would love the Black Country Museum if you've never been to it.

Julia x

Lyn said...

We have never been but would like to. I can imagine they are far from giving a really true picture of what life was like really. We popped over to Wentworth Castle gardens and had a lovely day there, thanks for the recommendation!
love
Lyn
xxx

Sheffy said...

Very interesting. Life must have been so hard. You always seem to find interesting places to visit.

Me said...

Oh this looks fascinating- thank you for 'showing' us. Its so easy to lose sight of other peoples struggles. Quite sobering.

Thank you so much for the parcel! I came home to it yesterday, and it did put a smile on my face. I've made a start, will keep you posted! xxx

Gilly said...

Sounds really interesting. But when I was in Leeds in the late 1950's, there were hundred of these back-to-backs. One street was, say Acacia Avenue, then the next street (the other half of the houses) was Back Acacia Avenue. And the b uilders weren't very inventive, the next street would Acacia Road, and the next Back Acacia Road. And so on and so on for miles.

Actually, apart from no through ventilation, the houses were usually in good nick. They were by no means all included in slum clearance, but I do wonder if there are any left?

Diane said...

Gosh, when I was last there it was on a press trip and it was all still a semi-demoltion site. We met the last family to live there, a man and his two grown up daughters. It all looks lovely now. I have to go back.

Diane said...

#demolition ...

nina marsh said...

Can not imagine how i would cope with out a proper bathroom instead of these washrooms.