Industrial Past

Back to back living in the city of ‘a thousand trades’

Birmingham grew rapidly in the 19th century as wave upon wave of immigrants arrived in the workshop of the world. In 1801 the population of the city was around 70,000, but by the end of the century it had more than 500,000. Many found work in the metal trades, where the opportunities were wide-ranging producing everything from buckles and buttons to jewellery and corkscrews. Such was the diversity of employment, Birmingham had been described as the “city of a thousand trades” by the poet Robert Southey.

Considering that for much of its history Birmingham was officially little more than a village, this growth was extraordinary. It rose to become the second largest population centre in England over the course of the Victorian period – and was officially made a city in 1889. But while Birmingham officially remains in number two spot behind London, its arch rival Manchester seems to steals most of the headlines these days (the BBC being just one of many organisations to move many of its employees up north, rather than the Midlands). Visiting the city as a child, my overriding impression of the centre was that it was one giant shopping complex (the Bullring) with the surrounding area dominated by ugly concrete buildings.

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Birmingham Town Hall

Returning to Birmingham this year, while a lot of the hastily-constructed post war architecture remains, it seems things are changing for the better. The new £180m library – the largest such regional establishment in Europe with over 100m books – opened in 2013 and has already won a number of awards. Demolition work will soon begin of Paradise Circus, a gloomy development centred around a building that previously housed the city’s central library and where only a food courtyard remains. Judging by artists’ impressions, the offices, hotels, restaurants and shops that will replace it, will be a considerable improvement. Once complete, the area stretching from the fine town hall and city museum to the new library will provide numerous connected open spaces for visitors and residents to stroll and take in Birmingham’s civic pride.

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On the way out – Paradise Circus – home to Birmingham’s library until last year

Perhaps then, more than ever before, with all the change it’s time to take a fresh look at Birmingham – and the way that it’s past has shaped the city today.

Birmingham’s story, which is wonderfully told in newly refurbished galleries in the city’s main museum, really starts in 1166 when Peter de Birmingham, paid the king for the right to hold a weekly market. As Lord of the manor, he received the rent from traders coming into the village to sell their crafts and other wares. The market also persuaded more to live here permanently (there were around 1,500 people here by 1300).

Between 1550 and 1700 Birmingham’s population grew from 1,500 to 11,500, becoming the fifth largest town in England. The fact that it was only officially a village, and therefore free from restrictive guilds, was particularly significant in this period of rapid expansion. Non-conformists weren’t allowed to practice their religion within five miles of an official town, so Birmingham became particularly attractive for Quakers, including Sampson Lloyd who settled and founded Lloyd’s Bank.

As we saw in my blog last week, there were grew to be some very large premises in Birmingham (Boulton and Watt claimed to have some one thousand employees by the 1770s). But even in the 19th century when the factory system became firmly established, in general many still performed outwork in their own homes. As well as becoming famous across the world for items such as buttons, it also produced large quantities of sporting and military guns, some of which were used in the transatlantic slave trade (Birmingham also supplied knives and shackles for the trade, receiving sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco in return).

With Birmingham’s growth, the pressure on housing became immense and greedy private landlords sought to squeeze as many properties as possible in the smallest possible space. Building back to back housing, essentially terraced houses one room deep sharing a back wall with another row of houses and built onto a courtyard, was seen as the best possible model. For most working people in Birmingham, where there were 20,000 such courts at peak, along with other cities in the Midlands and North of England, this was where they would have lived in the 19th and (some) of the 20th century.

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Back to back living at court 15

But while they were cheap to build and therefore highly profitable for landlords, they weren’t by many accounts very pleasant places to live, as Robert Rawlinson, writing in 1849, describes: “Many of the courts are closed in on all sides; the privies and cesspools are crowded against the houses, and there is a deficiency of light and ventilation.” And from the 1870s pressure grew to rid Birmingham of the centre’s ‘rookeries’, as Joseph Chamberlain protested at a Town Council meeting.

“We bring up a population in the dank, dark, dreary courts and alleys, such as are to be found throughout the area which we have selected; we surround them with noxious influences of every kind, and place them under conditions in which the observance of even ordinary decency is impossible; and what is the result? What can we expect of such a thing?”

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Court 15 today

While it took time, slowly but surely Birmingham’s housing stock was replaced (by 1933 40,000 newly built council homes had been built). In the process most of the back to backs were demolished. But, thankfully, not all. Just one court in Birmingham – Court 15 – in the heart of what is now the city’s Chinatown survives. Although the properties on a corner plot of Hurst Street and Inge Street were condemned for domestic use in 1966, they were saved because they continued to be occupied by businesses – a variety of little shops. In 2001, following several years of deterioration for the houses, the last of the traders moved out and the development was handed over to the National Trust.

Following three years of considerable renovation work (there were holes in the roof and the facades were crumbling), volunteer guides now give visitors fascinating tours around the homes in Court 15. Of the 11 houses, some are now National Trust holiday lets while others are used for a gift shop and an exhibition on back to backs (another is now a 1930s sweet shop). But four have been set-out to evoke different time periods – the 1840s, the 1870s, the 1930s and the 1970s – bringing to life what it would have been like to live – and work – in Birmingham for years gone by.

While the National Trust normally manages properties that were once owned by the rich and famous, the past residents of Court 15 were simply ordinary people. Inside we see the small space that large families would be crammed into; the parlours downstairs where the cooking and living took place, or the bedrooms upstairs where three or more were crammed into a small bed. To bring in more money, sometimes portions of rooms were sublet to lodgers – the only privacy, if any, being a curtain. Of course over time, more mod cons were added like electricity and plumbed in water. But you still couldn’t get away from the fact some of these properties (Court 15 was built in a number of stages from the 1802, and only became back to backs in the 1830s) were poorly built, so could get extremely cold in the winter.

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The guide that showed me around was a real character; the fact that he was a volunteer and not a paid employee gave him the liberty to go off whatever script he had been given. One of his frequent complaints was that interiors were too plush for the time periods being depicted. “These sheets seem too clean to me,” he said of the bedding in the second house. “Would they really have eaten oysters?” he queried in one of the parlours. Perhaps this is just being picky however, as visiting these homes provided an interesting insight into the past.

Inevitably with space at such a premium inside the homes, much time would be spent in the courtyard that the 11 houses shared. The two brew-houses (the term used in Birmingham for wash-houses), which contained what was cold a washing copper (an early form of washing machine) and were used on a rota through, survive. As does one of the Victorian privies, where with no sewage pipe to take the waste away, human excrement would have festered in buckets until the effluent was taken away each week by ‘night-soil’ men. It’s amazing that, with what was such a distinctive smell, children would have wanted to play outside, but they did.

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Even before Court 15 was condemned for domestic used in 1966, the 11 properties were places of work. And the National Trust has set-out the four ‘show’ properties to reflect this. Lawrence Levy who arrived here in the 1840s was a watchmaker and is likely to have had his workshop in his house; his tools are laid out on a wooden bench by the window. In the next house, depicting the 1870s, lived Herbert Oldfield and his family. He was glassmaker, but not a ‘mainstream’ one – he made glass eyes for customers who had lost their real eyes for customers who had lost their real eyes in an accident. These then were the ordinary folk of Birmingham, the city of ‘a thousand trades’, and thanks to the fact that Court 15 has been saved at least some of their stories can still be told.

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