Monday, 16 April 2018

Back to Backs National Trust Birmingham


Thanks for popping in.

Today we're going back in time to the 1780's when Birmingham's population had gone through the roof.  In the 1650's there were about 5.5 thousand residents but by 1785 there were over 52 thousand living there.  Conditions weren't good, the extent of the City was advancing into the fields beyond. Courts of Back to Back dwellings were built around a courtyard containing privies (toilets),  wash house plus shopping (workshops) as the residents also worked in these areas making items from metal.  

Court 15 marked on the map below, now restored and owned by the National Trust, had eleven dwellings, so that could be, say 6-10 people per house, 100 people sharing the courtyard and its 'facilities'.  A Back to Back would have comprised two dwellings joined together by a partition wall, each with a room on each of 3 floors, one dwelling with a front door accessed from the road and one accessed from the courtyard.  The rooms on the top floor would be a work room.  

The NT Back to Backs are the last remaining Quarter Back to Backs left in Birmingham.  The ground floor rooms on the main road side, were turned into shops, which is probably why they have lasted so long.  The last family moved out in 1966 after the Court was condemned for domestic living in 1965 whereas the last trader moved out in 2002.

To give an idea of how people lived, the NT have acquired furniture and fittings to dress each of 4 houses in a different time period and they give tours around the houses using Census information to talk about the actual people who lived there and how they were employed.

Entering the courtyard through the alley, everything looks spick and span, quite different from its heyday.  There were no horrible smells, no noisy banging and clanking of the metalwork, no screeching and shouting, no rats, no clutter.

Going inside the first property from the courtyard side, I was surprised that the blue-stencilled-walled sitting room was larger than I expected.  The fire in the grate kept it cosy and was the only means of cooking.  Of course there was no water plumbed into the property, this was obtained by queuing at the pump a few streets away, a job that would have needed to be done a number of times a day on washday. There was a small alcove for food preparation.

Up the very steep circular staircase to the next floor was the bedroom, which also looked a fair size.  The Oldfields, a family of 6, who lived there were fairly well off compared to others and were able to move on to a larger property in the Jewellery Quarter eventually.  Upstairs to the top floor was the workroom where Mr Oldfield made hands for clocks.  There were beds there too.

Walking through a convenient door into the next house, time had moved on but not the conditions.  10 people had lived in this house, a family of 8 with 2 lodgers, who shared one of the beds in the top floor room, maybe hot bedding (one sleeping by day and one by night), the other bed would be for the children who would have topped and tailed.

Down the steep staircase to the bedroom and then down again to the ground floor.  Although the parlour was slightly smaller and there was a range.  The man of the house made locks.

The next house, again a few years later, had another range and a tap available for washing.  There were a number of pots, food items and a bakelite radio that looked familiar on the table that I had seen before.  The room was set out  to include a work area where they made glass eyes!

The chart below shows what some of the other inhabitants of Court 15 did for a living.

It's amazing how life expectancy has changed since those days.

Up the stairs we went again to another bedroom where we were told about the bed bugs, shared between the walls and then up again.  The stairs are really steep and tight,  I kept getting my sleeve hooked onto the handrail!  This last bedroom was used to hold a collection of period items.

A door led to the fourth house which belonged to George Saunders, a bespoke tailor who used the upstairs as storage.  It had some rather nice wallpaper from days gone by.

His workroom was set up with his sewing machines and cloth, partially made suits and patterns.  

On the ground floor were more items relating to the Tailor, books, photos and a recording of his voice.

It was such an interesting tour, quite different from other National Trust properties.  Although there wasn't room for a cafe, there was an old fashioned sweet shop, NT shop and small exhibition area (up more stairs!)

By the way in 2011 the population in Birmingham was 1,073,045!

If you want to visit you need to book in advance, although we didn't, as they can only take 8 people at a time.



  1. What a fascinating place that I’d love to visit. It’s great that we can know exactly who lived there now thanks to the census. It’s definitely time I visited Birmingham. Enjoy the sunshine this week. B x

    1. Youd definitely love the tour as long as you've got good knees! You did a lot of work on the census for your Mill, didn't you, it really made a big difference at the Back to Backs knowing who lived there. The sun's been glorious, such a treat. x

  2. I loved visiting the Back to Backs as my Birmingham ancestors lived in just such a court. On the 1851 census they lived at No 17 court and by 1861 they lived at house 3 court 10. Their various occupations included gun implement maker, brass worker, cork cutter and umbrella ferrule maker and wood screw maker. Visiting the Back to Backs I could just imagine how they lived and worked in one house:)

    1. Sorry to be so late replying to your lovely message. How fascinating that your relatives lived so close by, your visit must have really conjured up their way of life. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, its heartening to see how things have come on since those days and how lucky we are today. 😊

  3. What a great tour, such a fascinating place to visit.

    1. I'm sure you'd really enjoy it, especially the tailor's house with all his material and bits and Bob's.