Though the National Trust is strongly associated with preserving the lifestyles of grand houses, one of its finest restoration projects of recent years brings vividly to life the living conditions of very ordinary Birmingham workers and their families.
The Birmingham Back-to-Backs is a fortunate survival of early nineteenth-century terraced houses dating from 1802-31 on the edge of the city centre, south of New Street Station, on the fringes of Chinatown and the Gay Village.
Here in what was once Court 15 on the corner of Ince Street and Hurst Street, as many of sixty people lived in eleven cramped houses, almost all of them back-to-back or blind-back in layout, with the privies and wash-houses (which in Birmingham are called “brewhouses”) in the yard outside.
Four of the houses are recreated to illustrate specific periods – a watchmaker’s house of the 1840s, a glass-eye-maker’s house of the 1870s, a locksmith’s of the 1930s and (after the buildings had been declared unfit for human habitation) a tailor’s shop of the 1970s which eventually closed when its proprietor, George Saunders, retired in 2002.
There were 43,000 of these dwellings in Birmingham at the end of the First World War, housing 200,000 people. By 1988, when Court 15 was listed Grade II, it was the only survivor.
After detailed archaeological and historical research and sensitive stabilisation and restoration by the Birmingham Conservation Trust, the Back-to-Backs were handed over to the National Trust.
The Trust has recreated the 1930s sweet shop on the corner, operates three of the houses as short-term rental properties, and opens most of the remaining buildings to the public on strictly timed-ticketed tours.
Here is a living memorial to the cramped, arduous but sociable lives of the millions of Britons and foreign immigrants who poured into the Victorian cities looking for work, and who are the ancestors of most of the current British population.
The Birmingham Back to Backs is not the easiest National Trust property to arrange to visit. Details are at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/birmingham-back-to-backs.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s Birmingham’s Heritage lecture, please click here.