To Birmingham with Lynne on the last day of September to meet daughter Siân accompanied by grandson David, unquestionably the world’s cutest baby.
Our intention was to visit the National Trust’s back-to-back houses, so first - a little history.
7th century Birmingham was a hamlet beside the River Rea. It had grown into a village worth 20 shillings by the time of the Domesday Book and in 1166 Peter de Birmingham was granted a royal charter to hold a regular market. The Bull Ring is still there, but I doubt Pete de Brum would recognise the recently re-rebuilt shopping mall as being his cattle market.
The City of Birmingham, though, is not a market town, it is a product of the industrial revolution. A population of 15,000 in 1700 had became 74,000 a century later and half a million by 1900. It doubled again in the following 50 years.
All those new people had to live somewhere and the answer for Birmingham, as in other growing cities, was back-to-back housing. A square of houses was constructed facing a small courtyard with another square of houses built on the back of them facing outwards to the street. Living in back-to-backs meant you were separated from your neighbours to left, right and behind by just one course of bricks.
Life in the back-to-backs was invariably overcrowded and often squalid, - though there were much more squalid ways of living in nineteenth century cities. The early residents were mainly skilled workers. They arrived with their families from all over the country, and beyond, attracted by the industrial boom that made Birmingham the workshop of the world. The three storey dwellings had a kitchen on the ground floor and a bedroom on each of the floors above. In houses already overcrowded by the large families of the era, space often had to be found for a workbench, as many men worked from home.
As the population continued to grow, those who could afford to moved out, making way for newer and poorer arrivals. As the city prospered, the poor were concentrated in the back-to-backs.
At their peak as many as 80,000 lived in Birmingham’s back-to-back houses, but as time moved on people wanted better accommodation. Clearance started in the 1930s. Second world war bombing cleared more, but those that survived gained an extra lease of life from the post-war housing shortage. The last residents moved out in the 1960s and by the mid 1970s only one block, Court 15 on the corner of Hurst Street and Inge Street survived, providing a home to several small businesses.
As the block was still standing in 1988 it was given listed building status. Restored in the 1990s by the Birmingham Conservation Trust, Court 15, now in the care of the National Trust, was opened to the public in 2004.
We were led through the tunnel from Inge Street by our guide Ann, who was herself born, brought up and started married life in back-to-backs not so very far away.
The courtyard was big enough for a vigorous game of badminton, though I doubt it was ever put to that use. Decorated with half-dry washing and a couple of decaying antique prams to give a flavour of the past, it looked remarkably cheerful in the warm sunshine.
We first entered the home of the Levy family in the 1830s. Mr Levy made hands for clocks and sold them in the Jewellery Quarter. The family were members of what was then a large Jewish community – Birmingham has been multi-cultural as long as it has been a city.
In 1861 the house next-door was occupied by Herbert Oldfield, a maker of false eyes, his wife and their eight children. Living conditions seemed to have improved little.
The third house brought us into the early years of the twentieth century with plumbing and gas lighting. A substantial range filled half the tiny kitchen. ‘Cosy’ was one word that was used to describe it. ‘Cramped’ was another.
The fourth property open to the public was once a tailor’s shop owned by George Saunders, who had arrived in Birmingham from the Caribbean in the 1950s. He retired when the restoration programme began and agreed to leave his shop exactly as it was. Now almost 80, he still takes an active interest in the Back-to-Backs project. [We visited again in May 2017 and were sorry to learn that Mr Saunders has recently died].
The tour is an hour and a quarter well spent. A National Trust property devoted entirely to the lives of ordinary people is rare, a wander through the servants’ quarters of a country house is usually the only indication of the lives of the great mass of the population. It is also strange to visit a past that was still alive in my childhood – though it seems almost like another planet. Two more properties on the court have been fully modernised as holiday homes. It is a great way to stay in the heart of the city while avoiding the anonymity of the major hotels.
Outside, part of Hurst Street has been pedestrianised. The pub opposite was covered in hanging baskets and, like a couple of nearby cafés, had tables lining the street. There were plenty of takers on this unusually warm September day. With the poverty and squalor of the back-to-backs behind us, the city looked relaxed and prosperous.
Birmingham’s ability to attract immigrants did not stop with the industrial revolution. Hurst Street stands on the edge of Birmingham’s Chinese quarter, so we headed for the Chung Ying Garden.
Once past the forbidding – and very Brummie – redbrick exterior, it was almost like being in China: the inevitable small flight of steps to the internal entrance being guarded by the obligatory stone lion. The clientele was overwhelmingly Chinese, too, undoubtedly a good sign.
David instantly charmed the waiter – he does it so effortlessly – and we were quickly brought menus, tea and a high chair.
|Classic chopstick technique|
With the growth of package holidays this slowly began to change. In the early 70s garlic appeared in our local Macfisheries (a now defunct supermarket chain) - sold by the clove. In the early 90s, we were reading the menu outside a restaurant in Portugal when an elderly British couple walked up and started reading over our shoulders. “I might like that,” he said cautiously, indicating an item on the menu. “There’ll probably be garlic in it,” she said threateningly. “We can always ask for it without garlic,” he suggested. She tutted. “Remember you asked for it without garlic in that place and they said ‘no garlic, no garlic,’ but when it came it was swimming in it.” I still occasionally wonder how anything can swim in a vegetable, but the British suspicion of garlic was deep rooted – even if they were not always sure what it was.
But all that has changed. There is scarcely a greengrocer in the country where you cannot buy a bulb of garlic; garlic bread is considered comfort food and is given to children. It should always have been thus; if bananas, pineapples and oranges, which cannot grow in our cool climate, have become integral parts of the national diet, why not the humble garlic. It grows here, after all, though our attempt was less than spectacularly successful.
Standing on the flagged floor of one of the back-to-backs Ann, the guide, remarked that some of them had earth floors and in wet weather slugs used to come up through the earth. “We didn’t waste them,” she said, “we fried them up with garlic butter.” She told us she had made this crack once and later a teenage member of the group had asked her quietly “Did you really do that with the slugs?” “We didn’t,” she replied, mischievously allowing him to believe that perhaps others had. But, as Ann herself said, back then she had never heard of garlic butter and would have had no idea what to do with it if she had. Such is the change in two generations.
|Our entire garlic crop 2007|
We finished our Birmingham outing with a visit to the indoor market to find a Chinese grocer. The Chinese butcher by the entrance had plenty of pork, including some fine trotters - a dish we have not enjoyed since Xingyi - but, strangely, no chicken’s feet. They were, however, plentiful at the Halal butcher’s next-door.
The market is clean and light. Birmingham’s huge variety of ethnic groups work in harmony to sell food, both exotic and everyday, to a huge variety of shoppers. On a bright sunshiny day, everything in the garden looked rosy.
It rains sometimes, though.