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On our last day in Birmingham, we visited the Back to Backs. These were a type of urban housing for the working class. The houses we saw were typically three small rooms, stacked one on top of the other. A room at ground level served as kitchen, dining room, and living room. One floor up was a bedroom. Another floor up was a second bedroom under the rafters. The set-up looked like it might be reasonably comfortable for three people — but one unit often housed eight or more.

Back to Backs

Ground floor all-purpose room of a Back to Back house that faced the courtyard

Back to backs had no ventilation because the back wall of one house facing the courtyard butted the back wall of another unit facing the street.

With the spiffy paint job, bricked courtyard, and lack of tenants, the Back to Backs today look quaint and promote some nostalgia. The tour guide, however, was careful to portray the scene as it was when people were actually crowded into this space.

Around the corner from the clothesline in this photo are the three pit toilets that would have been shared by every unit surrounding this courtyard — dozens of people. The bricks are a later addition, so the courtyard would have been a smelly, muddy mess in England’s wet climate.

Back to Backs

The courtyard had a shared coal-heated laundry tub and three pit toilets for all the residents.

Have you seen Peaky Blinders, the series set in post-WWI Birmingham? During the opening scene, I yelled “Back to Backs!” They are easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for.

We were the only Americans on the tour and were questioned about our substandard housing. Actually, the question was more along the lines of “Did the US have substandard housing in the late 1800s and early 1900s?” Heh. I explained the shotgun apartment (I lived in one for a summer in college). The shotgun arrangement, though, at least had the advantage of ventilation.


Birmingham Back-to-Backs #BriFri #Photos — 5 Comments

  1. I remember reading in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn about how they put in ventilation shafts in the crowded tenements, but they only ended up collecting trash. Thanks for the interesting post.

  2. Very interesting! I wouldn’t have minded a photo of the pit toilet, but maybe that’s just me. I haven’t had time to look at each of your FB uploads, so I’ll go digging (figuratively) through them.

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