Sunday, 21 April 2013

Local History - Birmingham

Back-to-backs and the Jewellery Quarter

I've always been interested in local history, especially Victorian and Edwardian. Living in Birmingham is fairly frustrating as the authorities decided to demolish countless characterful buildings.

For example, the old library which was torn down in 1974. It hadn't even been up for 100 years!

Inner city Birmingham was dominated by thousands of back-to-back houses, built in the 1700 and 1800's. These courts (as they were called), were built for working class people, mainly in industrial cities (e.g. Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool etc) and were badly lit and ventilated and of poor quality and sanitation. Thousands and thousands of people in Victorian and Edwardian Birmingham lived in these houses, but now there's only one proper court remaining.

Courts in Princip Street, 1960. Photo by Phyllis Nicklin

The last court is now owned by the National Trust and you can have a guided tour around the houses. 
Despite understanding that the houses were usually unpleasant to live in and were labelled as slums, I find it incredibly sad and baffling that they're practically all gone. It feels as if an entire way of living has been wiped from memory.

I recently read Kathleen Dayus' (born in 1903) amazing book, The Girl From Hockley , an incredible account of growing up in a Birmingham back-to-back. It made me realise that not only had the era passed, but so has a unique lifestyle, community vibe, and atmosphere which was once shared by vast amounts of Brummies. Reading an historical tale about your own town and from real memory is so much more enthralling - I could barely put the book down!

Back-to-backs were occupied up until the 1960's/70's, before they were bulldozed in slum clearances. Although so many old buildings were tragically torn down, a handful still remain (not enough though!). Last week, my parents and I explored Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter (Where Kathleen Dayus grew up) to attempt to get an impression of what the city would have been like for Dayus and her contemporaries. 

The Jewellery Quarter is a fairly well preserved section of inner city Brum which has a great deal more old and alluring buildings than most Birmingham areas. The district is still home to several jewellers workshops and has a rather authentic vibe.

 Old buildings on Camden Drive, where Dayus and her family lived in a back-to-back

I like the idea of Kathleen, or Kate as she was known, trotting down this cobbled alleyway off Camden Drive as a child

Cobbles - So much nicer than boring tarmac!

A modern view down Camden Drive

A photo of Camden Drive by Keith Berry, 1979

The George and Dragon where Dayus' father enjoyed a pint or two. I wish it was still in use, but at least it's standing!

  We found what looks like a refurbished courts of back-to-backs! Ironically, I bet these wouldn't be cheap today!
The front of the refurbished court - look at that old advert, I do love a good stationary shop!

What I believe to be another somewhat refurbished court. I had to sneak down several alleyways to get these snaps! You can really see what people meant when they described it as it like living down the bottom of a well.

An old building lost in the middle of new structures. 

Old factories, a reminder of Brum's industrial heritage

Possibly the remainder of a court?!

The Jeweller's Arms where Kathleen had the occasional drink

A factory chimney in the distance - they would have once dominated the skyline

I don't mean to romanticise what many have described as living in squalor, but I wish I could go back to old Brum for a day and have a good nosey around - it fascinates me!

I hope you enjoyed this different sort of post. Local history really floats my boat, what floats yours? 



  1. awhh loved this kind of post! i love history too and definitely when it can be made relevant to modern society. wish i could step into the past too x

    1. Thanks! Sounds like we have similar interests :D x

  2. Thank you so much for showing these photos, my great grandfather was a silversmith in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter. He grew up in a back to back, and he and his wife raised their children (including my Grandad) in a back to back. It is amazing and saddening to learn how unsanitary and harsh life was for them. I must visit the remaining court in Birmingham, I am a Brummie

    hugs Vicky xx

    1. My great grandfather was a jeweller in the Jewellery Quarter! Wow, I'd love to hear more about your ancestors, back to back life fascinates me for some reason! I highly recommend the last court - the tour they do is fab :) thank you for the lovely comment! xx