Birmingham Back to Backs

Birmingham Back to Backs

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The Birmingham Back to Backs (also known as Court 15) at 50–54 Inge Street and 55–63 Hurst Street
Hurst Street
Hurst Street is a street located in Birmingham City Centre, England.Hurst Street is the location of the Birmingham Hippodrome, a theatre specialising in ballet, opera, and musicals. It is the home of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Adjacent to the Hippodrome, across and on the corner of Inge Street,...

 are the last surviving court of back-to-back houses
Back-to-back houses
Usually of low quality 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...

 in Birmingham
Birmingham is a city and metropolitan borough in the West Midlands of England. It is the most populous British city outside the capital London, with a population of 1,036,900 , and lies at the heart of the West Midlands conurbation, the second most populous urban area in the United Kingdom with a...

, England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, now operated as a museum by the National Trust
National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty
The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, usually known as the National Trust, is a conservation organisation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland...


They are examples of the thousands of similar houses that were built, literally back to back, around courtyards, for the rapidly increasing population of Britain's expanding industrial towns.

Numerous back-to-back houses, two or three storeys high, were built in Birmingham
Birmingham is a city and metropolitan borough in the West Midlands of England. It is the most populous British city outside the capital London, with a population of 1,036,900 , and lies at the heart of the West Midlands conurbation, the second most populous urban area in the United Kingdom with a...

 during the 19th century, the majority of them were still in quite good condition in the early 20th century and also prior to their demolition. Most of these houses were concentrated in inner-city areas such as Ladywood
Ladywood is an inner-city area in Birmingham, England. It is a council constituency, managed by its own district committee. The constituency includes the smaller Ladywood ward and the wards of Aston, Nechells and Soho. In June 2004, Birmingham City Council conducted a city-wide "Ward Boundary...

, Handsworth
Handsworth, West Midlands
Handsworth is an inner city area of Birmingham in the West Midlands, England. The Local Government Act 1894 divided the ancient Staffordshire parish of Handsworth into two urban districts: Handsworth and Perry Barr. Handsworth was annexed to the county borough of Birmingham in Warwickshire in 1911...

, Aston
Aston is an area of the City of Birmingham, in the West Midlands of England. Lying to the north-east of the Birmingham city centre, Aston constitutes an electoral ward within the council constituency of Ladywood.-History:...

, Small Heath
Small Heath, Birmingham
Small Heath is an inner-city area within the city of Birmingham, West Midlands, England. It is situated on and around the A45 ....

 and Highgate
Highgate, Birmingham
Highgate is an area of Birmingham, England. Following the Big City Plan of February 2008, Highgate is now a district of Birmingham City Centre. This area is regarded as the site of the original Anglo-Saxon settlement which gave the city of Birmingham its name....

. By the early 1970s, almost all of Birmingham's back-to-back houses had been demolished. The occupants were rehoused in new council houses and flats
Council house
A council house, otherwise known as a local authority house, is a form of public or social housing. The term is used primarily in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Council houses were built and operated by local councils to supply uncrowded, well-built homes on secure tenancies at...

, some in redeveloped inner-city areas, while the majority moved to new housing estate
Housing estate
A housing estate is a group of buildings built together as a single development. The exact form may vary from country to country. Accordingly, a housing estate is usually built by a single contractor, with only a few styles of house or building design, so they tend to be uniform in appearance...

s such as Castle Vale
Castle Vale
Castle Vale is a housing estate located near Erdington currently Castle Vale votes with Tyburn Ward which is part of Erdington constituency, northeast of Birmingham city centre in England...

 and Chelmsley Wood
Chelmsley Wood
Chelmsley Wood is a neighbourhood, civil parish and large housing estate in the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull, England, with a population of 13,010. It is located near Birmingham International Airport and the National Exhibition Centre. It lies adjacent to Birmingham...



By the end of the 18th century, the land where the houses are now located was owned by several families. The Inge family, after whom Inge Street is named, owned the land on the west side of the street whilst the Gooch family owned the land to the east side, where the back to backs were built. The plot of land was 50 yards long and 20 yards wide.

In 1789, Sir Thomas Gooch leased the land to John Willmore, a local toymaker. It was agreed that within a year, Willmore should construct two or more large houses at a total cost, including the outbuildings, of no less than £700. Willmore failed to do this and Court 15, as well as Court 14 adjacent, were built by his successors who remained on the street throughout the 19th century. When John Willmore died, the land was split between his sons Joseph and John Willmore, leading to both constructions looking different.


Court 14 was completed in 1802 by Joseph Willmore, a silversmith. It consisted of six front and eleven back houses with some workshops on the larger southern end of the building plot. When opened, it was known as Willmore's Court but was later renamed Court 14 Inge Street. It has since been demolished.

At this time, John Willmore, a carpenter and joiner, constructed a house and workshop for himself. By 1809, the undeveloped remainder of the plot consisted of two nailer's workshops and a cooper's workshop with a knacker's yard behind. The Hurst Street frontage was filled with sheds. By 1821, No. 50 Inge Street/ 1 Court 15 had been converted into a pair of back to backs. No. 52 Inge Street/ 2 Court 15 and No. 54 Inge Street/3 Court 15 were built about 1830. The terrace along Hurst Street was constructed in 1831.


Throughout the 19th century, the court was occupied by workers who worked in such industries as button making, glasswork, woodwork, leatherwork, tailoring and were also skilled craftsmen in the jewellery and small metal trades. Many of such workers worked from home. Over 500 families have lived in Court 15.

From the 1830s to the 1930s, the Mitchells, a family of locksmiths and bellhangers, lived in the court. At one time, they were occupying both No. 55 Hurst Street and No. 54 Inge Street/3 Court 15. The family also worked at the workshop in the court for over 70 years.

In 1851, Joseph Barnett, a travelling Jeweller, lived at number 35 Inge Street, with his wife Hanna, and four children, Samuel, Eli Louis, Rebecca and Henry.

Other people who lived there highlight the crowded conditions of the houses, which were usually occupied by single families. In 1851, for example Sophia Hudson, a widow who worked as a pearl button driller, probably from home, lived at No. 1 Court 15 with her five children and her mother who also a widow. In 1861, Herbert Oldfield, a glass eye maker, occupied the same address with his wife and their eight children. At the same time, the Mitchell family had an apprentice who lived with them. Despite the cramped conditions, some families, such as the one who occupied 61 Hurst Street in 1851, were able to afford a servant.

By 1900, the ground floors had been converted into shops. Services offered from the buildings were a cycle maker, a hairdresser, a ticket writer, a fruiterer and a furniture dealer. The upper floors of No. 55 and No. 59 Hurst Street, the cycle maker's and the ticket writer's properties respectively, were converted into workshops as opposed to residential.

Most of the buildings remained in residential use up until 1966 when they were declared as unfit for living in. This resulted in those living in the buildings being forced to leave.


In 1988, the court received Grade II listed status from the Department of National Heritage. In 1995, Birmingham City Council
Birmingham City Council
The Birmingham City Council is the body responsible for the governance of the City of Birmingham in England, which has been a metropolitan district since 1974. It is the most populated local authority in the United Kingdom with, following a reorganisation of boundaries in June 2004, 120 Birmingham...

 commissioned the City of Hereford Archaeological Unit to survey and record them. Funding for this project was provided by the city council and English Heritage
English Heritage
English Heritage . is an executive non-departmental public body of the British Government sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport...


The Birmingham Back to Backs were restored by the Birmingham Conservation Trust
Birmingham Conservation Trust
Birmingham Conservation Trust is a charity which saves and restores historic buildings in the city of Birmingham, England. In 2004 it completed the conservation and restoration of the last surviving court of Back to Back houses on Hurst Street in the city...

, in collaboration with architects S. T. Walker & Duckham, and opened to the public on July 21, 2004. Their restoration was the subject of a five-part documentary
Documentary film
Documentary films constitute a broad category of nonfictional motion pictures intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction or maintaining a historical record...

 by Carlton Television
Carlton Television
Carlton Television was the ITV franchise holder for London and the surrounding counties including the cities of Solihull and Coventry of the West Midlands, south Suffolk, middle and east Hampshire, Oxfordshire, south Bedfordshire, south Northamptonshire, parts of Herefordshire & Worcestershire,...

. Each of the four houses is decorated and furnished as if in a different era; 1840s, 1870s, 1930s and 1970s. Visits are by pre-booked, timed guided tours only.

Layout and design

The court consists of three pairs of back to back houses on Inge Street and a terrace of five blind back houses on Hurst Street, in the form of an L-shaped footprint. All the buildings are three storeys tall with one room on each floor.

No. 50 Inge Street/ 1 Court 15, the first to be constructed, is the tallest and the largest in the court. Some evidence exists to indicate that it was originally a single dwelling but it has been occupied for most of its life as a pair of back to backs. Evidence to show that it may have originally been one house is available through the layout of the attic. The attic runs across the whole depth of the pair of houses, but was never divided and can only be reached from the back house of No. 1 Court 15 where the surviving staircase is of much better quality than any remaining in the other houses in Court 15. On the second floor, there is a now-blocked doorway in the spine wall between the two houses indicating that the floors to both houses were both accessible. At this level too, No. 50 Inge Street has been split into two rooms by a partition wall. The smaller of the two rooms is unheated and lit by a casement window
Casement window
A casement window is a window that is attached to its frame by one or more hinges. Casement windows are hinged at the side. A casement window (or casement) is a window that is attached to its frame by one or more hinges. Casement windows are hinged at the side. A casement window (or casement) is a...

. There are two tall chimney stacks, one for each house, in the pair.

The tunnel entrance to the court runs between No. 52 Inge Street/ 2 Court 15 and No. 54 Inge Street/ 3 Court 15. Each pair of houses shares a single chimney set on the ridge of the roof. The two back houses each have a bay window
Bay window
A bay window is a window space projecting outward from the main walls of a building and forming a bay in a room, either square or polygonal in plan. The angles most commonly used on the inside corners of the bay are 90, 135 and 150 degrees. Bay windows are often associated with Victorian architecture...

 to allow more light into the ground floor room. The lower floors to these houses have been divided by two spine walls. The upper floors are divided by one spine wall.

In No. 52 Inge Street/ 2 Court 15 only one original stairway remains — from the ground to the first floor in the front house. The stair in No. 54 Inge Street has been removed at ground floor level but in No. 3 Court 15 the complete staircase survives.
The rear entrances to Nos. 55, 57 and 59 are gained through a very narrow tunnel entry from Court 15. A staircase on the back wall of each house led up to the first and second floors. The houses were lit by windows on the Hurst Street side and heated by shared chimney stacks. No. 63 Hurst Street shared a chimney with No. 65 Hurst Street, the front house of a pair of back to backs which were part of Court 2 Hurst Street, now demolished. No. 55 Hurst Street has a large bay window at first floor level overlooking Inge Street, which is an early feature. All the houses in the terrace have late 20th century shop fronts, replacing earlier ones which were installed about 1900.

Court 15 may have originally had a water pump in the courtyard, though this is not known for certain. By the 1880s, a single tap had been installed. The brick paved yard contains an open drain running in front of the three back houses. In the 1930s, the two washhouses and water closets were constructed on the site of the workshops and outbuildings in the courtyard.

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