This weekend I was transported back to yesteryear (my favourite of all the years) when I visited the Birmingham Back to Backs.
If you’re not already aware, back to backs are terraced houses which were literally built back to back around a communal courtyard. Working class families flocked to the cities during the Industrial Revolution and this was a cheap way of sheltering large numbers of people in a relatively small area.
The houses have been restored to demonstrate different time periods and tell the stories of the people who once lived there. I’d wanted to go for a while, so when my friend Ellie announced she’d be coming to visit, the perfect opportunity arose to book a tour.
We met Harry, our lovely tour guide, outside the traditional Victorian sweet shop. We were a little early so there was time to buy some Turkish delight and liquorice wheels – but we had to leave behind the pear drops, rhubarb and custards, cola cubes, banana and custards, giant gobstoppers…
At each house, we learnt about the residents and their day to day life. In one house, there was 11 children, and at another six boys shared a bedroom with two lodgers! As you can imagine, the houses were dark, dingy and residents could expect a much lower quality of life than we’re accustomed to now – no electricity or running water. That said, I got the impression there was sense of community which most of us probably don’t experience in our modern lives.
Rather than a pristine museum with artifacts behind class, ‘do not touch’ signs and velvet rope ensuring you stay out of reach at all times, the houses are restored with of the era furniture and some props which you can inspect close up. I especially enjoyed the dinner table laid out with real food including bread, flour and freshly patted butter. (I doubt it was actually that fresh, but brownie points to the National Trust anyway!)
The atmosphere is cranked up again with real candles burning and clothes soaking in the wash house. It’s almost as though you’re sneaking around whilst the residents have all nipped out.
After housing provisions improved and people left the poor conditions of back to backs, some of the buildings began to be used by traders. Part of the museum is a time capsule of George Saunders’ tailor shop with original fixtures and fittings from the workshop which opened in 1977.
Amazing wallpaper! Seems kind of familiar though, doesn’t it? This 70s wallpaper is the inspiration behind the Cath Kidston Cowboy range. You can even pick up a mug in the gift shop as you leave.
From memory, I always felt a little unsatisfied from history lessons at school. It was a kind of abstract concept, where kings and queens whose lives bore no resemblance to my own fought wars for reasons I couldn’t understand. The stories of everyday individuals help me to put history into context, and if you can experience something as close to first hand as possible then all the better I think.