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Nothing 'romantic' about life in Brum's back-to-backs; Two writers have captured the memories of some of the people who used to live in Birmingham's back-to-backs for a new book. TREVOR FISHER examines the harsh reality of life in these slums.

HEN the last back-toback houses in Birmingham were demolished in the 1970s, few shed tears.

WYet the slums, last built in 1876 and most dating from much earlier, survive in more than folk memory as the examples preserved by the National Trust in Hurst Street demonstrate.

The fascination of lives lived in overcrowded, dirty, damp and insanitary housing endures, as the latest book of reminiscences proves. The new collection by two experienced writers about Birmingham's inner city is a successful attempt to capture the memories of those now elderly people who lived cheek by jowl.

The book, Birmingham: We Lived Back to Back - The Real Story, contains some remarkable stories of a distinctive way of life. The majority date from the 1930s to the 1960s and have been recorded by Ted Rudge and Mac Joseph to present them for posterity.

The common experience of people who lived in these houses was of overcrowding - rooms built on top of each other packed tight for jerry builders to cut costs.

All back-to-backs had blank rear walls with no windows or doors which meant there was no through air and poor sanitation. Inside they had few amenities, no kitchens and only cellars - for some - to keep coal in. Though they had water closets by the start of the 20th century, these were in the courtards which defined the enforced communal way of life.

The courtyards contained the washhouses (called brewhouses locally) which provided the only place for washing laundry, using water boiled by coal fires stoked by women, as it was women's labour to clean dirty clothes. Drying the clothes on washing lines with smog - fog filled with coal soot - and the dirty rain made their task doubly difficult.

New book Back-to-Back - Next to the brewhouse and the communal lavatories, the miskin - a Birmingham word for the dustbin area - held the rubbish which the way of life created in abundance.

Despite the dirt, this was recollected later as places of safety where children could play there many communal games.

The authors focus on overcrowding, the life of the courtyard, the lavatories and the brewhouse, suggesting these defined the way of life for generations of people.

But not all the working class lived in back-to-backs. My parents' house in Hockley was one of many which had a scullery, where bathing and washing clothes took place, and a rear door and my parents considered themselves a cut above the families in the back-tobacks.

We Lived Real Story Those with no choice but to live back-to-back had an added social stigma the book does not discuss.

The memories are largely positive for the most part, recalling lives lived with pride. But as the last chapters, focussing on Aston, Winson Green and Ladywood, reveal almost by accident, the reality was hard, cold, dirty and exhausting daily lives, particularly for the women who often went short of food to keep the family with enough to eat.

A respondent from Ladywood tells of his friend killed when derelict houses in Monument Road collapsed on him through the vibration of a passing train. No one has affection for outside toilets or the chamber pot in the bedroom - the 'gesunder' which went under the bed, but had to be emptied manually.

Overall the book does not romanticise life in the back-to-backs, and Carl Chinn in his excellent introduction is very clear that "hardship and bad housing are not romantic".

The final words of the text sum up a very mixed experience, they read: "We are glad to have experienced living in a back-to-back, it makes you appreciate what you have got now, but I would not like to go back".


New book Birmingham: We Lived Back-to-Back - The Real Story

A photo from the book shows an entry taken from street end. Three boys with bikes talk near a lavatory watched over by a lady on her step

A photo from the book of a back-to-back house in Bishop Street, Highate, around 1959. Homemade pailings surround the family's little part of the courtyard
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 15, 2016
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