Life At The Back to Backs

Washing hangs on a line across the inner courtyard of the Back to Backs

The Birmingham Back to Backs, otherwise known as Court 15, reveal the history of the working classes of the 19th century and much of the 20th century. They are places of echoes and memories, where ordinary people lived extraordinary lives.

Court 15 is the last surviving court in the West Midlands of a type of housing that once dominated cities in the Midlands. The memories of Court 15 reflect a rich and diverse heritage. People from across the world came to live side by side and practice one of the city’s ‘thousand trades’, often from their home.

What are Back to Back Houses?

Back to Backs are so-called because they were built back-to-back, quickly and cheaply, with outer houses facing onto the street, and inner houses facing into a shared courtyard.

Court 15 came into being as a series of Back to Back houses in the 1830s. Although the walls between the houses were only one brick thick (which would have made them very noisy places to live in!) the lintels over the doors and the bay windows at the back show that these particular houses were better built than many others nearby.

By 1896, all the houses fronting onto Hurst Street had become shops, and this was still the case until all of the properties had been vacated by 2002.

What Was It Like to Live in Back to Backs?

Everyone in such a ‘court’ of houses shared a brewhouse to do their washing and they also shared a small number of outdoor privies. Overcrowding and poor sanitation was common; our own court of 11 houses was once home to as many as 60 people, with only four privies between them!

It was common for families to take in lodgers to help pay the rent, and these lodgers would often share a bedroom with the family children, separated from them by a makeshift curtain.
Washing was done on one day of the week, and, as it was impractical to undertake regularly, bathing wasn’t much more frequent.

" Bath time meant putting a tin bath in front of the fire, and attempting to bathe without getting one’s knee too close to the side of the bath nearest the fire, which would become very hot very quickly, and could give you an unpleasant burn."
- Jean Whitehead

The houses were condemned as unsanitary places for living in the 1930s, but they were still people's homes up until the 1960s. By this time, they were structurally unsafe as well as insanitary.