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The history of Birmingham Back to Backs

The interior of one of the Birmingham Back to Backs, showing books, photo and a candlestick on a shelf with coats hanging below and a historic print hanging alongside, on a wall covered with a floral print wallpaper.
Interior of one of the Birmingham Back to Backs | © National Trust Images/Paul Harris

The Birmingham Back to Backs, once known as Court 15, is the last surviving court of houses that once dominated cities in the Midlands. People from around the world came to live and work side-by-side in these houses, which reveal the history of the working classes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Find out what it was like to live here, read about Birmingham’s rich and diverse heritage and discover the ordinary people who brought the Back to Backs to life.

What are back-to-back houses?

Back-to-backs are houses that were literally built back-to-back, quickly and cheaply, with outer houses facing onto the street and inner houses facing into a shared courtyard.

Court 15 was part of a series of back-to-back houses built in Birmingham 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 houses were better built than many others nearby.

By 1896, all the houses fronting onto Hurst Street had become shops, and this remained the case until 2002, when all the properties had been vacated.

A young volunteer in costume stands in the doorway of one of the Birmingham back to backs, West Midlands.
Young volunteer at Birmingham Back to Backs, West Midlands | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Life in back-to-back housing

Everyone who lived in back-to-back, or ‘court’ housing, shared a brewhouse to do their washing and a small number of outdoor toilets. Overcrowding and poor sanitation was common; this 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's children, separated from them by a makeshift curtain.

'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, a former Back to Backs resident

Washing was done on one day of the week and bathing wasn’t much more frequent. The houses were condemned as unsanitary places to live in the 1930s, but people still lived here up until the 1960s. By this time, the houses were structurally unsafe as well as unsanitary.

The historic courtyard of one of the Birmingham Back to Backs, displayed as it would have been in the 1930s with washing on the line, dolly tub, washboard, bicycle and pushchair.
View into Courtyard of 1930's Back to Backs | © National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

Who lived at the Birmingham Back to Backs?


Joining the Jewish community in Birmingham

The Levy family were a Jewish family who migrated from London to Birmingham in 1851. By this time, there was a Jewish community of around 700 people in the city, along with a synagogue and a Hebrew school nearby.  

Lawrence Levy was a watchmaker and it's 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 historic courtyard of one of the Birmingham Back to Backs, displayed as it would have been in the 1930s with washing on the line, dolly tub, washboard, bicycle and pushchair.

Book your visit

Please note you need to book tickets to Birmingham Back to Backs. You can book for the following day up until 4pm. Every Thursday another week of time slots is added, so you can book up to four weeks in advance.

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The historic shopfront of George Saunders, the tailors, on Hurst Street as part of the Birmingham Back to Backs, West Midlands

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Discover the history behind the George Saunders’ collection at Birmingham Back to Backs, a story that is inextricably linked with Birmingham’s black history.

A volunteer in costume gives visitors a tour in the communal courtyard of the Birmingham Back to Backs, West Midlands.

Things to see and do at Birmingham Back to Backs 

Step back in time and experience life in Birmingham’s last surviving court of back-to-back houses, taking you from the 1840s through to the 1970s on an intimate guided tour.

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Our work at the Birmingham Back to Backs 

Explore what goes into caring for a particularly unusual collection, which offers a glimpse into the lives of the ordinary people who helped shaped Birmingham.

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Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.

A wooden box filled with glass eyes for toys from the 1870s house at the Birmingham Back to Backs, West Midlands.

Birmingham Back to Backs collections 

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at the Back to Backs on the National Trust Collections website.