Our work at the Birmingham Back to Backs
A time capsule of working-class life, Birmingham Back to Backs has one of the more unusual collections of National Trust properties. Rather than grand tapestries or historic books, it houses the country's only collection of work by a Caribbean tailor. Discover how our work at the Back to Backs focuses on conserving this unique collection and the threats that we protect it from.
Who was George Saunders?
George Saunders was born in St Kitts in the Caribbean. After arriving in the UK 1958 he operated as a tailor in Court 15 from 1974 until 2001. He was one of the last tenants to move out when the back-to-back houses were transformed into the museum you see today.
He kindly donated some of his items to help preserve this last living link to the houses. Discover his story on a tour when you visit his shop.
George Saunders' collection
As you might guess, a collection donated by a tailor is largely made up of clothes and other fabrics. Some of the items donated to us include suits made by George, a large sample of the materials he used, as well as some very exclusive riding jodhpurs he made to fulfil an order from the Queen’s Household Cavalry.
Protecting the collection from light
One of the biggest risks to the collection comes from exposure to light. It may not seem harmful, but light can be incredibly damaging to clothes and other textiles.
Too much exposure will result in the colours of the cloth fading and, if subjected to large amounts of light over a long period of time, the fabrics themselves can thin and eventually break apart.
Limiting light levels
You will notice as you enter George Saunders’ shop that the windows are covered and the blinds are down. This is a way of limiting how much light gets in the room.
You may also notice little squares of cardboard with blue pieces of cloth in them. These are dosimeters, and are used to monitor light levels. They stay in one place throughout the year and are sent off annually for analysis. The results tell us how much damage is being done to the fabric in that one particular spot.
Combating moth damage
Another risk to the collection comes from moths, which can cause havoc by eating away at the fibres of the cloth if left unchecked.
To limit and combat any damage done by moths, we undertake regular moth counts. Throughout the back-to-back houses are moth traps, and every month we count how many moths have been caught. This gives us an idea of the level of moth activity so that we can act accordingly.
Caring for other objects
The items in the George Saunders collection are the only items that are original to this property and because of their importance, should not be touched. However, we do have lots of other items in the other three houses that aren’t originally from the Back to Backs that can be handled. These also need to be cared for but in a different way, so we wash them using soft washing up liquid and fabric softener.
Bringing the collection to life
As objects at the Back to Backs have been donated over the years and taken from other collections, they are what is known as a ‘sacrificial collection’, meaning that people can touch them and get a real feel for the items.
Objects in the sacrificial collection include beds, shoes, cutlery, coins, tools and soap. The fact you can interact with these items is just part of what makes the Back to Backs so special.
Our conservation team
To make sure that the collection is kept clean and ready for visitors to explore, we have a team of hard-working housekeeping volunteers who look after the sacrificial collection in the three showhouses, and also some conservation volunteers who are specifically trained in how to handle to collection left to us by George Saunders.
We take many precautions in the fight to preserve the collection and our dedicated volunteers are integral to that effort.
With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.
Birmingham Back to Backs are open for visits by guided tour only, book online in advance to explore the stories of Court 15.
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.
Find out what life was like in back-to-back housing for the working classes of the 19th and 20th centuries and discover the people who brought the Back to Backs to life.
Discover the history behind the George Saunders’ collection at Birmingham Back to Backs, a story that is inextricably linked with Birmingham’s black history.
Read about our strategy 'For everyone, for ever' here at the National Trust, which will take the organisation through to 2025.