11 February 2014

Life Back to Back: An Ann Street Court

Close-up of court 6 behind Ann Street, 1860s. The court was probably
built around the turn of the nineteenth century. 

The lives of the working people of Birmingham were rarely recorded in the same detail as those of the middling groups, and when they were recorded it was often to note the charity or benevolence of an institution such as the Blue Coat School. It was not until the Victorian era working people's housing began to be described, and then, with the invention of the camera, visually recorded. But in 1786 3,738 of Birmingham's 9,773 dwelling houses were backwards facing,* so this kind of housing is a sizable slice of the town's social and cultural built heritage. The close-up, above, is a wonderful insight into life behind Birmingham's streets, with the chickens in the court and washing on the line.

Back to back housing was one of the dominant answers to the urban overcrowding caused by rapid growth in many towns from the late 1700s, and Birmingham particularly took on the design. They were literally what they sound like, houses laid out back to back, so that the only entrance and windows were on the front; the houses arranged around an open court. These were sometimes built in the gardens of older housing, but new streets were also being laid out all around the outskirts of the town. Although the living conditions in such housing is generally thought of as poor, these houses could be a huge improvement to many run-down rural cottages, and Birmingham's housing was better than other cities. In 1828, John Darwall, a doctor at Birmingham's General Hospital, noted that in Birmingham
'the streets are, for the most part, wide and spacious, and the courts have, generally, large yards. Unlike Liverpool and Manchester, excepting the part of the town which is occupied by the Irish, it is rare to find more than one family in one house, and I know not any situation where cellars are occupied by dwellings.'**
Regardless of this, housing could often be poorly built making it quickly run down, so with poor drainage, poor diet and poverty, illness was particularly quick to spread through these closely built dwellings.

Full image of court 6, Ann Street, 1860s. The area is being prepared for demolition for the new Council House;
the rubble in the foreground had previously been further housing.
The church in the background is the now demolished Christ Church. 

* JAL (301)
** Quoted in Chris Upton's Living Back to Back

No comments:

Post a Comment