28 July 2008


Birmingham used to be a vast sprawling but unknown urban industrial jungle somewhere in the heart of England. However, since Frances started university there, Shirley and I have been getting to know the place. Co-incidentally we were at a wedding there on Saturday. Former work colleague Jonathan was marrying Denise.

After the service, we checked in at the Eaton Hotel on Hagley Road then with an A to Z in hand we walked through leafy Edgbaston down to Hornton Grange where the wedding reception was held. We passed some beautiful properties set in mature gardens. Sometimes it felt as if we were on a stroll in the country - not hiking through England's second city.

On Sunday morning we had a leisurely breakfast and then drove into the centre of the city to visit the Birmingham Back-to-Backs "exhibition". Just next to the Hippodrome and on the corner of Hurst and Inge Streets is the last remaining "back-to-backs" court in a city which once boasted thousands of these cheap housing solutions - home to many thousands of working class families for a hundred years beginning around 1830. How cramped and primitive conditions must have been.

Ironically, the National Trust has spent around a million pounds rescuing "Court 15", turning it into an important attraction which recognises and pays homage to the downtrodden masses who had to live in these tiny houses - which were literally "back to back" with only one door in and out of each three room/three storey house. In the shared courtyard there were privvies and a wash-house and - only towards the end of the nineteenth century - a tap which provided clean running water. Previously, water had had to be carried from a well about a hundred metres away.

The heritage industry seems to prefer to preserve and promote the homes of the rich and influential. Rarely does it even nod towards those who made empires and powered industry - the workers. In this city where I write this post - Sheffield - there also used to be hundreds of back-to-back courts and I have a friend who was born in one such "slum". We are pretty sure that there are absolutely no back-to-backs remaining in Sheffield. They were bulldozed away to make space for new roads, high rise flats and industrial estates. All of those songs, those rows, those mothers calling their children in as darkness fell, those rentmen knocking, those lamp-lighters and knockers-up, those drunken husbands squandering precious wages, that laughter, those neighbourly memories... not even an echo is left. But in Birmingham, the "Back-to-Backs" exhibition allows you to peep through a keyhole into the antithesis of Narnia.


  1. There used to be hundreds of back-to-backs in Leeds too - I'm not sure how many are left now. It's good that they've kept these in Birmingham as a grim reminder of how millions of people used to live.

  2. I remember the back to backs in Leeds when visiting a friend; I'd never seen them for real and was terribly shocked - my comfy London suburban childhood hadn't prepared me for that way of living cheek by jowl with your neighbours - I was all semis and a few terraces. Very Abigail's Party.

  3. I thought you all still lived in these type of houses. Just joking.

  4. DAPHNE - Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Manchester - they're all gone. And the people never locked their doors partly because they had nothing worth stealing. And life expectancy in the back to backs was on average an amazing 26 years in the mid nineteenth century given high infant mortality.
    MOPSA - Cheek by jowl - it is worth understanding that back to back life wasn't all bad - there was often a genuine sense of community - people looking out for each other - so different from our semi-detached suburbs.
    KATHERINE - There you go again having a pop at your imperial masters! Not joking.

  5. Listen, I don't suppose you'd have that recipe for Chicken Madras since I haven't had it since 1983...you would mention it over at Hadrainnas place and get me started!

  6. Hamburgers and Schlitz? I'm American, but not boring lol...you can only eat so much hamburger and as a (retired) cop I know what a drunk looks like, they aren't attractive, terribly smart and tend to fall over things...and where's my Chicken Madras recipe???

  7. I don't think they ate Chicken Madras in the back to backs. Talking of which, I keep meaning to catch up with my videos of "When the Boat comes in"...they were lucky to eat meat once a week. One part of my family made a mini fortune providing "Fish and Chips"...which were bought on salary day I think. Must ask Granda!

  8. I think it's very important though that our working class heritage & history is recalled.
    There's a wonderful little museum in the east end area of London, near Mile End, called the Ragged School Museum. It's not open that often, only a couple of days a week from memory. But it's a trove of working class history.
    Well worth googling for their website.

    I visited Birmingham about three or four years ago, to watch South London Storm play rugby league. I was amazed at how nice the area was around the Victorian Town Hall square, with a cracking old museum, and the pleasant canal area nearby.

    Obviously changed a lot, or the image of it being a total shithole was a 'cockney urban myth'.


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