The Back to Back House in
19th Century England
The back to backs were built to house the rapidly increasing working population that swelled Britain's expanding industrial towns. The back to back house was once the most common form of housing in England. Buildings were in rows, courts or blocks and provided a home for the majority of working people in Victorian cities. Although there were reportedly over half a million of them in England they have now almost entirely vanished from the urban landscape. The back to back house was a nineteenth century response to a specific housing need. It consisted of being one room deep with a single entrance either from the street or from an inner yard. These houses were two or three storeys high and occasionally had a cellar underneath. The ground floor served as an all purpose, overlapping space for living and combined the functions of living room, kitchen, dining room and bathroom. The upper floor was used as bedrooms and was often divided by insubstantial panelling to separate parents from children or tenant from lodger. Any house that had a cellar was generally only used as a coalhole although in poorer parts of England such as Manchester and Liverpool they were lived in.
As the name back to back suggests the building shared a spine wall with another house facing in the opposite direction. A row of houses tended to face the front onto the street and the back row faced into an inner courtyard. The houses that faced onto the street were generally considered to be superior to those facing behind and rent for the property tended to be adjusted to reflect this fact. The arrangement of the court meant that houses tended to be hemmed in on three sides by the other houses and therefore necessitated the use of an alleyway to provide access to the rear yard at the back of the houses.
The courtyard itself provided for a multitude of functions. In the yard there was the water tap, the washing line, the wash house, the toilets and the dustbins. The courtyard was also a place where children would play and in warm weather to bathe. All these facilities tended to be shared with other families in the court.
Inside a back to back house
The way into a back house was via an arched passageway (entry, alley, gulley, vennel) which was situated between two of the front houses. The entry itself was approximately three feet wide with its narrowness making for a difficult exit if a fire happened to break out in the court. On entering the house, ill fitting or damaged doors were a bane to the life of the court families and a curtain was often hung on the inside of the door to keep out the draughts. The absence of a coat rack meant that discarded coats often hung from it too, as well as the all important key to the toilet in the yard.
The room within was small and almost always dark whether lit by candle, oil lamp or gas mantle. The single window did little to lift the gloom as it looked out onto the interior of the yard which was itself darkened by high surrounding walls. The majority of the room was taken up by a large table, where its white wood top was scrubbed and cleaned daily. The table was where meals were prepared and eaten; it stood approximately two feet from the range where food was cooked. A single chair or a bench was usually the sum total of the furniture in the room. The table might also contain all the crockery and cutlery that the family owned. The floor of the living room was likely to be uncarpeted apart from a scattering of rugs which were made from old clothes and various materials which made skidding something of an occupational hazard.
The rising damp on the walls was often concealed behind a wooden dado which occupied the lower part of the wall. The inside walls themselves might be wall papered or simply painted. Black leading the range was one of life’s weekly chores, but tending the fire was a continuous occupation. The fire was likely to be lit all day and in the majority of houses provided for the sole source of heat and the only place in the house where the damp was kept at bay. Suspended from a hook above the fire hung the kettle which was the source of all beverages and hot water and tended to be boiling continuously throughout the day.
It was not uncommon for a house to have a fitted cupboard to one side of the fireplace. There was also the presence of a piano where no other source of music was possible, however, the ability to play it was in decline and more often than not it became the place to store old letters and the all important rent book.
Facing the entrance to the house were two doors, the first of these led down to the cellar that had a steel or zinc bath tub hanging from the inside of it, this was used on bath nights and was placed in front of the fire and filled by the all purpose kettle. The cellar also housed the coal which was tipped down a shute from a grating in the yard. The cellar was a dark, forbidding place and tended to be dreaded by families of the back to backs. The second door led to the opening of the winding and equally unlit staircase to the upper floors. The lack of a handrail made the ascent difficult and was the source of many accidents. At the top of the spiralling stairs was the bedroom which tended to be fitted with a flimsy partition to create an extra bedroom for children or lodgers. The marble topped wash stand was a prominent feature. For the more well off the bedstead was made of iron or brass and had a flock mattress on top, for the poorer family bedding consisted of a mattress on the floor. The better constructed backs to backs in areas such as Birmingham had fireplaces in the upper room and were a luxury even if carrying the coal up the dark stairs was not a pleasant task. Often fireplaces were left unlit unless a child was ill. A peg rug would be on the bedroom floor and a chamber pot would be under the bed. The walls were usually papered and families would make an effort to hang pictures. Without exception the bedroom would have had a ‘Bless This House’ picture or a print of ‘The Light of the World’.
Outside a back to back house
The size of the courtyards varied depending upon the number of houses that shared it. All facilities such as the toilet and wash house were shared with other families. The yard was lit by a single gas lamp. Close to the centre of the yard stood the water tap or standpipe which was the sole supply of fresh, clean water for the entire court community. To one side of the yard was the wash house where early in the morning cold water had to carried across from the tap in order to fill the boiler. The large cast iron or copper container was housed in black brick which helped to retain the heat. Underneath the boiler a fire was started to heat the water and wood was added at regular intervals to keep the fire alight. As coal was expensive, this was used sparingly and tended to be better appreciated for heating the range inside the house. Only when the water was actually boiling could the process of washing clothes actually begin. As soap tended to be expensive, shavings of coal tar soap was used to help get the washing clean.
After boiling, scrubbing and starching the washing could be removed from the boiler and transferred to a dolly tub where a wooden dolly would be used to remove the soap and rinse the clothes in clean water. A mangle that was also used between the court dwellers squeezed out the excess water before the washing was finally hung out to dry on a line that was strung up across the court typically from the gas lamp to the wash house. A strict rota had to observed within the court and numerous arguments over washing arrangements were common.
The space next to the wash houses was generally taken up by the toilets (privies). The number of these varied between courts. The toilets were always kept locked with each house having a key. Tearing up the newspaper for the privy was a common childhood task. It was an irony of court life that although the houses were kept mostly unlocked at all times, the toilets were not. The section of the court set aside for the rubbish was traditionally known as the ‘miskin’. It was the refuse tip where the court’s waste products were piled up.
The type of work conducted in the back to back yard varied. Not only were there often workshops, but families too, especially women who were part of a penny economy as a means of increasing the household budget. It is clear that all manner of personal and functional activities were possible in this communal area but even this did not exclude the possibility of families carving out a private space within it. The space in the yard was subdivided and those living there new exactly where the division lay. It is unlikely that any back to back court was designed to include a garden, although residents did have access to one. ‘Guinea Gardens’ were small plots of land on the edge of town which were rented for a guinea a year upon which families erected summer houses and grew fruit and vegetables. Some families even took a summer vacation there.
In summary, the back to back house was probably the most flexible and varied form of housing England had ever seen when compared to terrace and semi detached as well as council houses that followed in their wake which all tended to replicate each other. The back to back houses were cheap and affordable, relatively inexpensive to heat and adaptable to the available land on which they were built. Those people who lived there tended to reflect positively on the experience, highlighting the courage, perseverance and community spirit of the back to backers. The space in the yard was subdivided and those living there new exactly where the division lay- just outside the front or back door. For the poorer society this was the only world that they were likely to experience. For most of the nineteenth century the housing became renowned for squalor, disease and poverty due to its cramped design and poor sanitation and it was this along with a perceived lack of privacy and dignity that led to their eventual demise.
Inside Out, (2006) Back to Back Terraces. www.bbc.co.uk
Accessed March 2012
National Trust, Birmingham Back to Backs. www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Accessed March 2012
Upton, C. (2010) Living Back to Back. Hampshire: Phillmore and Co. Ltd