Birmingham Back to Backs – The National Trust

Leaving the caravan on site just outside Shrewsbury we had a bit of a trek into the centre of Birmingham. I’d read about this place, Birmingham Back to Backs, a step back in time, courtesy of the National Trust. Right in the heart of the hustle and bustle of Birmingham.

Pre-booking is essential and you may have to book weeks in advance. On this occasion, a cold, bright November day, we phoned in the morning and 3 hours later we were standing outside, awaiting our tour guide. The tour lasts approximately 90 minutes and takes groups of 8 people at a time. Groups are small due to the size of the rooms in the houses. It costs £8 per person to get in, free if you are a member of the National Trust. The tour does involve climbing 11 steep and narrow staircases within the houses.

We arrived about 15 minutes before the start of our tour and the staff suggested we went upstairs to take a look at their small exhibition. In hindsight, I’m glad we had time to do this prior to the tour as it helped understand the background of the homes and lives of the families into which we were about to step back in time into.

The tour is centred around Court 15, Hurst Street. This courtyard has the only surviving back to back houses in central Birmingham, Two of which are available to hire for short breaks.

We met our tour guide, outside the old fashioned sweet shop. After a brief history of the three houses in front of us we time travelled through a ginnel (a small passageway between two buildings) and back to 1840.

The ginnel opened into a small courtyard. This was the communal area for all the families living in Court 15. Standing, you could almost hear the chatter and laughter of the children playing and the women as they used the wash house. Privacy was unheard of in this area. Everyone, living in such cramped conditions knew everyone else’s business.

We got to peer into the washhouse and a glimpse into three privies that would’ve been shared by about 68 people.

Back in 1840 the first house was occupied by the Levy family. A Jewish family, who weren’t short of a bob or two. The man of the house made clock hands, a business run from home which his sons followed him into.

The second house is set in 1870 and was occupied by the Oldfield family and their two, young, unmarried lodgers. Mr. Oldfield also worked from home and made glass eyes for stuffed animals along with glass eyes for people.

These houses are small. With the ‘unmarried’ lodgers sharing a room with the children with just a sheet as a partition.

The third house jumps to 1930 and George Mitchell, a locksmith, lived there for most of his life with the added luxuries of running cold water and electric lighting.

A lot of the properties started being converted into shops in the 1900s and the fourth property we enter is occupied by George Saunders in the 1970s. A talented tailor from the Caribbean who went on to to be one of Birmingham’s finest tailors.

Visiting the Back to Backs was especially interesting for us as our second home together in Bolton was a grade 2 listed cottage built in 1860. Although not a back to back, the houses were very similar in size and design. Ours was initially built in a court, the houses being terraced, with the houses behind separated only by a ginnel. Shared privies and a wash house would also have featured in the original court. Mid 1900s the houses behind ours were demolished leaving space that was to become our gardens. It was good stepping back in time and being able to see the transformation that our home for 17 years had gone through prior to us owning it.

Birley Street, Astley Bridge, Bolton. Our home for 17 years.

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