Friday, October 05, 2012

Birmingham Back-to-Backs

File:Birmingham Back to Backs interior.jpg
[photo and explanatory paragraph both from Wikipedia]

Back-to-back houses are a form of terraced house in which two houses share a rear wall (or in which the rear wall of a house directly abuts a factory or other building). Usually of low quality (sometimes with only two rooms, one on each floor) and high density, they were built for working class people and because three of the four walls of the house were shared with other buildings and therefore contained no doors or windows, back-to-back houses were notoriously ill-lit and poorly ventilated and sanitation was of a low standard.

I didn't know what "back-to-backs" were until today, either!

An estimated 500 families have lived here at this court of eleven houses over the course of its two hundred years of existence.

This was the most unusual National Trust property we've visited yet. I have no photos, but we had a lovely two hours.

There are four time periods depicted, profiling several different families who made this particular courtyard of back-to-backs their homes. 

The first home belonged to the Levy family, who moved from London to Birmingham and lived here in the 1840s. This home was the one I preferred most, with its stencilled wall designs, candles, and hand-crocheted bedspread that looked a lot like one my great-grandmother made.

The second, set in the 1870s, was much more crowded with a family of ten children crammed into three rooms [stacked one on top of the other with a steep, narrow staircase connecting the three] and quite Victorian, with odd collections of bits and bobs replacing the simplicity of the earlier era.

The third home belonged to a bachelor, in the 1930s the final occupant from his family, members of which had lived in this court for nearly a century.

The fourth home, a shop, was occupied by a tailor called George Saunders from the 1970s onwards.

Back-to-back housing was condemned by social activists as early as the Victorian period. From the early 1900s onwards, most back-to-back courts were demolished.  Sadly, the families who were moved from these back-to-backs into the government housing of the 1950s found that with their shared space gone, the community between them was greatly diminished. Somehow, this court --once one of many-- was the only one in Birmingham to survive demolition during the social change of the 20th century, and was finally rescued and immortalised by the National Trust a decade ago as a piece of English history. 

We were allowed to handle most of the items [within reason] at this property, which made it a great visit for the kids.  They also appreciated the old-fashioned sweetshop on the corner, and were treated to some sugary treats by Grammy. These certainly were the fuel for our energetic walk over to the Thinktank, Birmingham's kids' science museum, for a few hours of learning through play.

Later we met Dan and our friend James for dinner out, and to complete what ended up being a proper "treat day", we had a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts from Selfridges.  These are not seen very often around our house, but when they are, their presence creates quite a buzz!  

Back at home, we sat round the table together with hot cups of coffee [decaffeinated tea for the kids] and divided the doughnuts into quarters and halves so that everyone could experience tasting all the different doughnut types.  It was sugar --what can I say?-- I don't think anyone was feeling picky.  

Afterwards we had the typical "sugar let-down" feeling: doughnuts are just not all they're cracked up to be.  They are gorgeous eye candy [especially Krispy Kremes] but the artificiality of their flavour gets old very quickly.

Later, I set to work mixing up a batch of chocolate fudge cupcakes to be sent to the Big Feed weekend.  Fortunately, there will be some left for us. More sugar --but homemade makes all the difference!

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