Birmingham’s last surviving court arrangement of Back to Back houses maintained by the National Trust is another historical treasure worth visiting.
Not too long ago there was a derelict row of shops crumbling away on the corner of Hurst Street and Inge Street. The frontages had been changed over time, businesses had come and gone and there was only a few remaining glimpses of the original Georgian façade visible. Little did most people know at the time what a rich history this corner plot of dilapidated buildings held. For not only was there the history of the building physically changing over years since it was built in the 1840’s but also a rich architectural, social and cultural history to be told.
Luckily this worth was recognised and the building was listed in 1988 as grade II. Several years later funding was raised by the city council and The National Trust to restore this row of shops to its original state and reopen it as a museum to show what life was like working and living in a back to back house. Each house represents a different era spanning from the 1840’s to the 1970’s telling a different story about the various residents who inhabited this corner plot over 130+ years.
The houses are arranged around a communal courtyard which houses the washroom, water closets and water supply. There are three pairs of back to back houses facing onto Inge Street and a terrace of five ‘blind back’ houses facing onto Hurst Street totally 11 dwellings. The houses consist of three storeys with narrow staircases leading to a single room on each floor.
The ground floor of the five terraces facing onto Hurst Street have become shops frontages and it was common for these properties over time to be converted into shops/workshops on the street frontage with living accommodation above. On Inge Street the front backs are accessible off the street and the rear backs are accessible through a pedestrian passage leading to the courtyard.
Each dwelling has a narrow frontage fenestrated with timber sash windows with the classic arrangement of three panes by two on each of the two sashes- a typical Georgian window pattern. Very little decoration is present on the facade apart from a simple brick dental course at eaves level and brick arches above openings. The window proportions get smaller as you reach the eaves line and fanlights are present above the door- all early Georgian period features. The houses are built out of red brick, only one brick thick with grey slate roof tiles.
Visits are by tour guide only and need to be pre-booked. Four of the houses form part of the tour and have been been furnished to a high standard to represent different historical eras. Three of the houses facing onto Inge Street can be rented out for short stays and the frontages on Hurst Street house a vintage sweet shop, tourist centre and two shops which form part of the historical tour. There is also a exhibition which details the story behind the restoration and has additional details, census records and photographs of some of the actual residents who lived there.
I cannot recommend enough what a fascinating and interesting day out the Birmingham Back to Backs are. The National Trust and Birmingham Conservation Trust have done a fantastic job in restoring these buildings and preserving their history. The interior of the properties have wonderful period detail, and props, smells and music are all used to set the scene for each story the four houses represent to help transport you back in time. The tour guides all seemed very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the subject and were very helpful answering any questions. The one thing that stuck me was just how small and cramped the living conditions were. Sometimes several families would be living in each dwelling, one on each floor. The stair cases were extremely narrow and winding and it must have felt very claustrophobic. The tour really gives you a sense of how difficult life was like for people living in this conditions with no sanitation, little ventilation, heating or lighting.
This court arrangement of houses is the last of its kind in the country and the last back to back houses in Brum. The majority of back to back dwellings were demolished in mass slum clearance programmes after the First World War with only a few remaining examples existing in the north in cities such as Bradford. This makes the preservation of this corner plot of buildings so special as a reminder of the life of ordinary folk during the Victorian era.
More details on how to visit the back to backs are available here: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/birmingham-back-to-backs/
- Builder/Owner: Willmore
- Year: Circa 1840
- Use: Residential- back to back courtyard housing
- Style: Georgian
- Material: Brickwork
- Status: Grade II Listed