The People of The Back to Backs

Jackets hanging from a shelf on the wall with books on it

It is believed that around 500 different families would have lived in the Back to Backs over their 200 year lifespan. Court 15 currently tells the stories of different occupants from four time periods, from 1840 to 1977. The design of each interior reflects the varied cultures, faiths and professions of the families who made their homes and workplaces here.

The Levy Family were a Jewish family who migrated to Birmingham from London and lived at Court 15 from 1851. By this time, there was a Jewish community of around 700 people in the city, and there was a synagogue and a Hebrew School nearby.

Lawrence Levy was a watchmaker, and it is likely that he used part of the house as his workshop. The family had moved out of the court and closer to the city's Jewellery Quarter by 1861.

The Oldfield Family moved from one of the front houses of Court 15 into one of the more affordable back houses in the 1860s. As far as we can trace, they had ten children, and the widowed Herbert Oldfield was still living there with five of his children in the 1870s, when there were also two lodgers in the household.

Herbert Oldfield was a glassworker who made glass eyes for dolls and stuffed toys, and possibly also for people who had lost a real eye in an accident. It is likely that Herbert also used his home as a workshop.

A case full of glass eyeballs of a variety of colours

The Mitchell Family remained in Court 15 for 95 years (which was very uncommon). Three generations of the family saw the court from the 1830s, when it didn’t even have its own water supply, through to 1935 when the houses had basic plumbing and electricity. The men of the family were locksmiths by trade. The house that now represents their story is dated to the 1930s, and shows evidence of the less welcome inhabitants of back to back houses – bed bugs!

George Saunders was the last person to be working in Court 15 before its closure in 2002. George migrated to Birmingham in 1958 from St. Kitts in the Caribbean.

Although he was a skilled tailor like his father before him, it was difficult for George to find work initially. He started by working in a biscuit factory before taking on a tailoring job at Philip Collier’s. He eventually set up his own business in Bordesley Green before he moved into Court 15 in 1974. George then ran his tailor shop from 57 Hurst Street, building up his reputation for high quality work by word of mouth.

George kindly donated many of his items when he left the court in 2002, and they are still here today, with original examples of George’s work. These form the basis of the Birmingham Back to Backs’ unique collection; one which truly belongs to the houses.