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ARCHIVE SPECIAL: Going back to Back to Backs a lifestyle of a bygone age; Chris Upton reflects on the origins of and the grim reality of living in a 19th century communal housing solution.

Byline: Chris Upton

For close on 200 years the Birmingham Back to Backs have stood still, while history has ebbed and flowed around them.

They have been home to perhaps 3,000 people, until in the 1960s legislation meant that they could be called home no longer and after that only the shopkeepers remained.

It was in 2002 that the last occupant - George Saunders the tailor - pulled down his shutters for the final time. It was ironic that after two centuries of Jewish tailoring in the street that the last man to ply the trade there hailed from the Caribbean.

What is it that makes Court 15 so special? For one thing it represents one of the last survivors of what was once the commonest form of housing in the Midlands and north of England.

For the whole of the 19th century the back to back court was the most economic and practical solution to working-class housing.

South from Leeds and Liverpool through Derby and Nottingham to the Black Country and Birmingham, courts spread through the inner cities, occupying every vacant lot or redundant back garden.

By the First World War, 40 years after they had stopped building them, Birmingham still had 43,000 such houses, accommodating more than 200,000 people.

In Leeds they continued to erect them as the Second World War approached, and they still live in them today. The estate agents, with their astute grasp of the English language, now call them 'single aspect houses'.

For two-thirds of the working population of Yorkshire, South Lancashire and the Midlands, the back to back court circumscribed their lives. They were born there; they lived and died there, not always in the same court but often in an identical one a few streets away.

Vast numbers of us have a parent or a grandparent who occupied one, families who pre-date the drift into the suburbs and the distant estates.

Court 15 is therefore a tangible, physical link to a communal past, and its survival is as remarkable as it was unplanned. There were once so many such courts that no one considered their preservation until it was almost too late.

Indeed, so complete has been the expunging of back to backs from our urban landscape that the term itself probably needs a brief explanation.

Like the terraced house that steadily replaced it, the back to back house was a 19th-century response to a specific housing need.

Unlike the terrace, it was only one room deep, with a single entrance either from the street or from an inner yard. Such houses were of two or three storeys, sometimes with a cellar underneath. In contemporary parlance they called them 'one-up and one-down' or 'two-up and one-down'. The ground floor served as an all-purpose space for living, combining the functions of living-room, kitchen, bathroom and dining-room, at a time when such functions overlapped entirely.

The upper floor or floors were used as bedrooms, often divided by flimsy panelling to separate parents from children, or tenant from lodger. Cellars were generally only employed as a coal-hole, though in the poorer parts of Liverpool and Manchester they were lived in.

As such the back to back was not significantly different from the workers' or labourers' cottage of the countryside, and in all likelihood that is its origin. What made the urban version distinctive was the arrangement. As the name suggests the back to back shared a spine wall with another house facing in the opposite direction, and the most common pattern is of a row houses fronting the street, with a back row facing into an inner courtyard.

The houses facing the street were generally considered superior to those behind, and the rent was adjusted to fit this fact.

As Rev Charles Joseph told the Artisans' Dwellings Enquiry in Birmingham in 1884: 'It is an indisputable fact that, all other things being equal, the drunken man lives in the low-rented and squalid back-house, while the sober man lives in the more decent habitation at the front.

A trifle sweeping, perhaps, but undoubtedly reflecting the prevalent social values.

The arrangement of the court meant the average house was hemmed in on three sides by other houses. Of course, this necessitated an alleyway to give access to the rear yard and to the back houses.

In some towns the format did not fully develop. The one-room cottage might be only a blind-back, shut off by a windowless wall to the rear, or a single row of cottages shared an enclosed court. Such houses were no better ventilated or more sanitary than the back to backs, but did not attract quite the same degree of Victorian opprobrium.

This pattern was infinitely variable in accordance with the shape or confines of the site. One court was overlooked by a factory at the side or the rear; another shared a high partition wall with an adjoining court. One court might have as few as four houses in it, and another as many as 20; one court might house only a handful of people; another could accommodate 100The area bordered by Inge Street, Essex Street, Hurst Street and Bromsgrove Street, for example, contains courts with as many as 22 and as few as nine houses.

These variations, the relative space in the court and the pressure on the services, were often reflected in the rental value of the properties and an unspoken pecking-order among the residents.

The court at the corner of Inge Street and Hurst Street was probably considered to be superior to many exactly because it occupied a corner site, and the fact that only three of its houses faced inwards.

As we will see, the landlord or his agent who fixed the rent took account of this fact.

The way each court was numbered for rental or postal purposes varied, too. The earliest rating maps or censuses will tend to number the courts consecutively along a street, and the houses in sequence within each court: 1 House, 4 Court; 2 House 4 Court etc. Earlier still, the court might even by named after the landowner or tenant who built itBy the 20th century, however, enough courts were being demolished to disrupt the numerical sequence and to demand an alternative system of counting, whereby the back houses are numbered with reference to the ones that fronted the street: 1 back of 52 High Street. 2 Back of 53 etc. These are the kind of addresses indelibly printed upon the memories of many who lived through the 1920s and 1930s.

Not that this pattern of building was universal. The enthusiasm of builders and property developers for back to backs did not spread to every town. The middle of Birmingham was filled with them, but the centre of Wolverhampton had none.

There were back to backs in Derby and Nottingham, but none in Burton-on-Trent; Worcester and Coventry had them, but not so Dudley and Walsall. Yet all these towns experienced a similar population explosion in the late 18th and early 19th century.

However, these regional and local distinctions are more technical than real. All of the industrial towns of the Midlands and the North had court houses, and though the people in them might not share a party wall with another house to the rear, they certainly did share a court, along with the services that it provided.

The courtyard itself had a multitude of functions, although these varied over time. In the yard were the water tap, the washing-line, the wash-house, the toilets and the dustbins. It was a place for the children to play (although they usually preferred the street, where there was a wider clientele) and in warm weather to bath.

There were sometimes workshops in it and the occasional fenced-off, but often infringed, garden. Our modern divisions between private and public space were here subverted by a notion, strange to us today, of communal territory.

The yard itself was the great leveller, and any theoretical superiority felt by those at the front of the court was immediately undermined by the trip down the alley to the water-closet. The word 'privy' seems strangely inappropriate to what was actually the case.

Even within this simple arrangement of shared privies and party-walls there were considerable variations. In Leeds and Hull, towns with large numbers of back-to backs in 1909 effectively condemned them to death, was not himself averse to this arrangement. It did, at the very least, allow for windows - and therefore through ventilation - on two sides.

The back to back was probably the most flexible and varied form of housing this country has ever seen, certainly compared to the carbon-copy terracing, council semi-detacheds and flats that followed. The houses were cheap and affordable, relatively inexpensive to heat and infinitely adaptable to the shape of plots.

But for almost all of the 19th century they came with some very insanitary baggage. It was this, along with the perceived lack of privacy and dignity, that led to their demise.

Such a world changes remarkably little in the course of 150 years, chiefly because those who lived in the back to back courts were not economically able to alter their external circumstances very much.

As a result, the range, the scrubbed table, the tin bath and the outside toilet offer a surprising physical continuity between the 1830s and the 1930s. In much the same way the courtyard rituals of birth and death, bath night and wash day, effortlessly span the generations.

It is disposable and surplus income that allows us to widen the circumference of our lives, both in how we choose to live and where. Those who occupied the courts did not have such freedom, nor did they necessarily miss it either.

There was, and probably still is, a trade-off between privacy and possessions and community, though the latter is rarely noticed until it is missed.

The back to back died a very slow death. Although outlawed by some local bye-laws (Birmingham discontinued them in 1876) there was no national ban until 1909, and the court remained remarkably flexible even in decline.

Between 1902 and 1905 Birmingham took advantage of the 1890 Housing Act to open up 33 courts by demolishing one side in order to allow light and ventilation (those Victorian cure-alls) to penetrate the dark interiors.

Later still - and the court in Inge Street is a good example of this - those that survived could provide temporary accommodation for families joining the long queue for a council house.

There is one strong reason why the tale of Court 15 deserves to be told. The question of how we house our population remains as big an issue (to coin a phrase) today as it did when Court 15 was completed in the 1830s.

It is not perceived as a crisis any more than it was in the early 19th century, yet it is one, and the two contrary aspects of it are as real now as they were 200 years ago.

On one side, the cost of homes is growing far beyond the means of the next generation to buy one. This is especially true in the desirable parts of the countryside and in central London, but is increasingly the case in all our cities.

Currently the cost of the average house is rising by pounds 25,000 a year, and our overall housing stock is said to be about 30 per cent overvalued.

Ironically, a home in the inner city (most likely a loft apartment) is now at the top of the property ladder, whereas 100 or even 50 years ago it was decidedly at the bottom.

Yet at the same time it is estimated that 1.1 million children are still disadvantaged by poor housing, one in 20 families is living in conditions deemed unacceptable, and four persons per thousand are homeless. At the same time the quality of our social and council housing is continuing to deteriorate.

In 1997 it was estimated that two million houses owned by local authorities and housing associations were sub-standard. A quarter of all our houses were built before the First World War. A century ago government policy was to transfer the problem of poor housing from the private sector to local government, triggering a house building boom that matched, if not surpassed, that of the early 19th century.

A century later, the policy has turned exactly around, shifting the solution back towards the private sector. Which is or has been the more successful approach is for history to judge.

In 200 years, it seems - despite considerable progress in issues of health and standards of living - housing is a problem we cannot get rid of Chris Upton's book Living Back to Back (Phillimore & Co Ltd. pounds 16.99) is now available. He will be at Bond's Books, High St, Harborne, on April 23 between 10.30am-12.30pm to sign copies H SATURDAY April 16 2005 49


At the turn of the 20th century, a mother and her children chop wood inside their home to sell as firewood; Alfred Morgan, who lived at no3, back of 53, in the 1960s, returned to see the restored back to backs; A poverty-stricken family stands outside their dark and dingy back to back home in Upper Priory c. 1872; Roof tops of back-to-back houses in Small Heath; The brave new world - the rebuilding of Castle Vale in 1966; No 10 Court, Cheapside, in 1905; How the Inge Street court has been restored; The sanitised version of the downstairs room in the National Trust's back-to-back houses in Inge Street and a typical kitchen in one of the two-up-and-one-down in Lozells in the 1950s, before an improvement programme; Children playing in a court 1956; Families from Ladywood march to the Council House in 1964, demanding better homes
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 16, 2005
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