19.6.12

Living Back to Back

Tuesday, 2 August 1881 - Birmingham, England

I have been traveling about Birmingham recording buildings that will be destroyed by German bombs in the Blitz or over-zealous city planners. Today I tried to record buildings no one is sorry to see disappear.

Once a small village and now near the city center, Digbeth was the first industrial district of Birmingham. Starting with the late middle ages with the influx of blacksmiths, Digbeth rang with the sound of anvils. Other workshops and factories began springing up.

One problem with the industrial age (mainly 1750-1850) was the factories came before trains and trams. Workers had to walk to work. Housing had to be crammed into small spaces and had to be low cost. One solution was the back-to-back house.

Nicer back-to-back houses around a courtyard
The back-to-back was so named because the back of the house butted up against the back of another house, or a shop or factory. The sides were shared with the houses beside you. Windows were only in the front of the house, because that was the only open side. They were generally two story, with a parlor/kitchen/dining room on the bottom, and a bedroom on the second floor. Sometimes a third floor was added. The stairwell was narrow and steep, so accidents were common. Some houses had no stairs at all but a ladder built against the wall you had to climb to get to the next floor.

This might have made quaint Bohemian lodgings for college students, but these were usually crammed with large families. Add to that poor lighting and ventilation (windows on one side, remember?) No plumbing and crowded conditions made for poor sanitation. The only heat came from a small coal-fired stove, which added to the black soot that coated the neighborhood. Disease spreads quickly in this sort of environment.

A common site in the crowded Victorian slums
Birmingham isn’t the only city with slums but she is one of the first to do something about it. In 1874, then Lord Mayor Joseph Chamberlain began improving water, sewer and gas utilities by making them the city’s responsibility. He implemented a plan to tear down the slums, sending the tenants to the less crowded suburbs. Some will end up in back-to-backs again, but these will be ones in better condition.

Back-to-backs houses
due for demolition
Those who can afford it have already moved to the suburbs, leaving only the poorest in these slums. Many of them are Irish, the largest minority group currently (1881) in Birmingham. Unable to pay for passage to America or Canada, they took a boat across the Irish Sea to try to escape poverty. Poverty just followed them. Most of the Irish are unskilled labor and prefer to work construction to factory work. Chamberlain's  plan to build affordable but decent housing in the suburbs will not only given them new homes but jobs as well in the demolition and construction. Those that remain in Digbeth will be in a less crowded, more healthy Digbeth.

Joseph Chamberlain
Joseph Chamberlain is one of the few mayors anywhere who was able, in only a few years, to leave his city in much better shape than he found it. He made his fortune here in Birmingham and he has certainly repaid the city. The grateful citizens erected a memorial to him in Council House Square just last year. No, Joseph Chamberlain isn’t dead. He is in Parliament right now as the President of the Board of Trade (later called Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.) Although he will never be Prime Minister, he is becoming one of the most influential politicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As for Digbeth, it’s already looking much better. Some day it will be home to the biggest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Great Britain as the community celebrates it’s Irish heritage, as well as the tenacity of their ancestors who clawed their way out of poverty so their children could live better lives.

Digbeth already enjoying improvements

Birmingham’s Last Back-to-Back (now a museum)

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