Tuesday 12 July 2011

Back to backs

by Richard Russell-Lawrence

A back to back in Birmingham
In the late Georgian period (1774-1810) Britain’s population was becoming more urban. The balance of the economy was changing from agriculture to industry. Industrial workers needed to live near their workshops and manufactories. New homes were required for workers in the growing towns such as Birmingham and Nottingham. During the 1770s a new type of house met this need: the back to back.

It was the same width as a small ‘through’ house (about 13 feet). It might also be two or three storeys high  but the major difference was that a back to back was only one room deep. The door opened into a kitchen living-room or ‘house-room’ on the ground floor. In the corner was a flight of steep stairs leading to the bedrooms above.  A kitchen range was set into the chimney breast but the bedrooms above seldom had fireplaces. A thin wall divided it from another house which faced the other way.

cutaway of pairs of back to backs
The  space to build them was found on small open spaces in towns which had previously been yards, gardens or folds. Alternatively, burgages, thin strips of land left over from the medieval system of farming, were built over as towns such as Leeds spread over nearby farmland. The cost of development was reduced by  cramming two dwellings onto plots with only a single street front.

The back to backs were built around a  communal yard, known as the ‘court’. This contained the communal facilities, the wash or ‘brew’ houses and the outside toilets known as privies. A wall might be built on the boundary of the property. Houses facing the street were regarded as more desirable than those facing the court. The rent was higher accordingly: Two shillings and sixpence per week compared with One and ten for a ‘back’ house. During the late Georgian period one side was left open which allowed both access and the removal of rubbish, ash from coal fires and cess from the shared privies.

burgages, narrow strips of land on which new urban houses were built

plan of a court showing the side open to the street
Soon back to backs became the most common form of urban housing in the growing industrial towns. Middle class businessmen & tradesmen lent money to builders to construct them. During the eighteenth century, buying & leasing small plots was both profitable and secure. The rent for a pair of back to backs was more than that of a single through house. The speculators sold them to investors who received annual rents of £5-6  for each house. Even members of the first building societies or building clubs built back-to-back houses for their own occupation. In 1787, rows of back-to-back cottages were erected by a building club in an area east of Vicar Lane in Leeds. The first back-to-backs in Nottingham were built in 1775.  By 1790 most of its 3,000 houses were back-to-backs. By 1841 the number had grown to 12,600. They were very small: the ‘house-room’ was just 12 by 11 feet but the yard was used for overflow if the weather allowed. They had other problems such as damp but to their occupants they were a home of their own. They were usually occupied by a single family of five. Conditions easily became insanitary especially during the Regency & Early Victorian period when the courts were closed by building on the open side. Access to the court was through a narrow tunnel. In Birmingham it was known as the ‘entry’. This could be as narrow as one foot six inches.

Above: detail from 1888 OS map of Birmingham
a Birmingham court, privies (right), wash house (left), entry (centre)
By 1801 the population of Birmingham had grown to 60,000; two thirds of them lived in back-to-backs. The 1888 Ordnance Survey map shows the centre of the town crammed with back to backs , mainly in closed courts near ‘Works’ with relatively few through houses. The National Trust has preserved some  back to backs which were in Court Number 15 of 20 on Hurst Street. Court Number 15 was built in the 1830s; during this period conditions in the courts were the worst due to overcrowding as the population of Birmingham grew to 522,000 in 1851. The communal privies were earth closets which were supposed to be emptied each week by ‘night men’. If this was not done they overflowed. This could infect the local water source which spread cholera and typhoid  in the closely  confined courts.  In Birmingham a major outbreak of Asiatic cholera in 1831-2 killed 32,000. In 1848-9 a further 64,000 died.

Above: a cellar entrance in Manchester
Some back-to-backs had cellars which were mainly used for storing coal but Liverpool and Manchester became notorious for their cellar dwellings. Insanitary conditions in towns threatened the entire population. As public awareness of this grew  some attempts were made to sanitise the courts. Ineffectual measures included lime washing 4-5 feet up the walls. The prevalent theory was that infectious disease was spread through inhaling bad air; known as ‘miasma’. Early legislation was aimed at improving ventilation by letting in more light and air. After the 1848 Public Health Act, conditions began to improve as local authorities passed by laws which specified minimum sizes for rooms, windows, street width, and standards for drainage & sanitation.

contemporary illustration of an insanitary, crowded court
The 1875 Public Health Act forced local authorities to act. In most towns it  was the end for back-to-backs. Somehow they continued to be built in Leeds and Bradford. The 1909 Housing and Town Planning Act effectively banned the building of back-to-backs. Leeds found a loophole as so many plots had already been granted planning permission so they continued to be built there until the 1930s. A  study, in 2008,  found that were  still approximately 19,500 back-to-backs in Leeds.   Elsewhere the new homes which replaced them were snapped up by the better off leaving  the courts still occupied.  The National Trust’s back to backs in Birmingham were lived in until the 1960s. Elsewhere, most back-to-backs have been demolished by slum clearances.

Buy The Book of the Edwardian and Interwar House by Richard Russell-Lawrence


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