The Birmingham Back to Backs (also known as Court 15) are the city's last surviving court of back-to-back houses. They are preserved as examples of the thousands of similar houses that were built around shared courtyards, for the rapidly increasing population of Britain's expanding industrial towns. They are a very particular sort of British terraced housing. This sort of housing was deemed unsatisfactory, and the passage of the Public Health Act 1875 meant that no more were built; instead byelaw terraced houses took their place. This court, at 50–54 Inge Street and 55–63 Hurst Street, is now operated as a historic house museum by the National Trust.
Numerous back-to-back houses, two or three storeys high, were built in Birmingham during the 19th century. Most of these houses were concentrated in inner-city areas such as Ladywood, Handsworth, Aston, Small Heath and Highgate. Most were still in quite good condition in the early 20th century and also prior to their demolition. By the early 1970s, almost all of Birmingham's back-to-back houses had been demolished. The occupants were rehoused in new council houses and flats, some in redeveloped inner-city areas, while the majority moved to new housing estates such as Castle Vale and Chelmsley Wood.
By the end of the 18th century, the land where the houses are now located was owned by several families. The Inge family, after whom Inge Street is named, owned the land on the west side of the street whilst the Gooch family owned the land to the east side, where the back to backs were built. The plot of land was 50 yards long and 20 yards wide.
In 1789, Sir Thomas Gooch leased the land to John Willmore, a local toymaker. It was agreed that within a year, Willmore should construct two or more large houses at a total cost, including the outbuildings, of no less than £700. Willmore failed to do this and Court 15, as well as Court 14 adjacent, were built by his successors who remained on the street throughout the 19th century. When John Willmore died, the land was split between his sons Joseph and John Willmore, leading to the constructions looking different.
Court 14 was completed in 1802 by Joseph Willmore, a silversmith. It consisted of six front and eleven back houses with some workshops on the larger southern end of the building plot. When opened, it was known as Willmore's Court but was later renamed Court 14 Inge Street. It has since been demolished.
At this time, John Willmore, a carpenter and joiner, constructed a house and workshop for himself. By 1809, the undeveloped remainder of the plot consisted of two nailer's workshops and a cooper's workshop with a knacker's yard behind. The Hurst Street frontage was filled with sheds. By 1821, No. 50 Inge Street/ 1 Court 15 had been converted into a pair of back to backs. No. 52 Inge Street/ 2 Court 15 and No. 54 Inge Street/3 Court 15 were built about 1830. The terrace along Hurst Street was constructed in 1831.
Throughout the 19th century, the court was occupied by workers who worked in such industries as button making, glasswork, woodwork, leatherwork, tailoring and were also skilled craftsmen in the jewellery and small metal trades. Many of such workers worked from home. Over 500 families have lived in Court 15.
From the 1830s to the 1930s, the Mitchells, a family of locksmiths and bellhangers, lived in the court. At one time, they were occupying both No. 55 Hurst Street and No. 54 Inge Street/3 Court 15. The family also worked at the workshop in the court for over 70 years. In 1851, Joseph Barnett, a travelling jeweller, lived at number 35 Inge Street, with his wife Hanna, and four children, Samuel, Eli Louis, Rebecca and Henry.
Other people who lived there highlight the crowded conditions of the houses, which were usually occupied by single families. In 1851, for example Sophia Hudson, a widow who worked as a pearl button driller, probably from home, lived at No. 1 Court 15 with her five children and her mother who also a widow. In 1861, Herbert Oldfield, a glass eye maker, occupied the same address with his wife and their eight children. At the same time, the Mitchell family had an apprentice who lived with them. Despite the cramped conditions, some families, such as the one who occupied 61 Hurst Street in 1851, were able to afford a servant.
By 1900, the ground floors had been converted into shops. Services offered from the buildings were a cycle maker, a hairdresser, a ticket writer, a fruiterer and a furniture dealer. The upper floors of No. 55 and No. 59 Hurst Street, the cycle maker's and the ticket writer's properties respectively, were converted into workshops as opposed to residential.
Most of the buildings remained in residential use until 1966 when they were declared as unfit for habitation. This resulted in those living in the buildings being required to leave.
In 1988, the court received Grade II listed status from the Department of National Heritage. In 1995, Birmingham City Council commissioned the City of Hereford Archaeological Unit to survey and record them. Funding for this project was provided by the city council and English Heritage.
The Birmingham Back to Backs were restored by the Birmingham Conservation Trust, in collaboration with architects S. T. Walker & Duckham, and opened to the public on 21 July 2004. Their restoration was the subject of a five-part documentary by Carlton Television. Each of the four houses is decorated and furnished as if in a different era; 1840s, 1870s, 1930s and 1970s. Visits are by pre-booked, timed guided tours only.
The court consists of three pairs of back-to-back houses on Inge Street and a terrace of five blind back houses on Hurst Street, in the form of an L-shaped footprint. All the buildings are three storeys tall with one room on each floor.
No. 50 Inge Street/ 1 Court 15, the first to be constructed, is the tallest and the largest in the court. Some evidence exists to indicate that it was originally a single dwelling but it has been occupied for most of its life as a pair of back to backs. Evidence to show that it may have originally been one house is available through the layout of the attic. The attic runs across the whole depth of the pair of houses, but was never divided and can only be reached from the back house of No. 1 Court 15 where the surviving staircase is of much better quality than any remaining in the other houses in Court 15.
On the second floor, there is a now-blocked doorway in the spine wall between the two houses indicating that the floors to both houses were both accessible. At this level too, No. 50 Inge Street has been split into two rooms by a partition wall. The smaller of the two rooms is unheated and lit by a casement window. There are two tall chimney stacks, one for each house, in the pair.
The tunnel entrance to the court runs between No. 52 Inge Street/ 2 Court 15 and No. 54 Inge Street/ 3 Court 15. Each pair of houses shares a single chimney set on the ridge of the roof. The two back houses each have a bay window to allow more light into the ground floor room. The lower floors to these houses have been divided by two spine walls. The upper floors are divided by one spine wall.
In No. 52 Inge Street/ 2 Court 15 only one original stairway remains — from the ground to the first floor in the front house. The stair in No. 54 Inge Street has been removed at ground floor level but in No. 3 Court 15 the complete staircase survives.
The rear entrances to Nos. 55, 57 and 59 are gained through a very narrow tunnel entry from Court 15. A staircase on the back wall of each house led up to the first and second floors. The houses were lit by windows on the Hurst Street side and heated by shared chimney stacks. No. 63 Hurst Street shared a chimney with No. 65 Hurst Street, the front house of a pair of back to backs which were part of Court 2 Hurst Street, now demolished. No. 55 Hurst Street has a large bay window at first floor level overlooking Inge Street, which is an early feature. All the houses in the terrace have late 20th century shop fronts, replacing earlier ones which were installed about 1900.
Court 15 may have originally had a water pump in the courtyard, though this is not known for certain. By the 1880s, a single tap had been installed. The brick paved yard contains an open drain running in front of the three back houses. In the 1930s, the two washhouses and water closets (outdoor flush toilets) were constructed on the site of the workshops and outbuildings in the courtyard.
** – Visiting – **
If you wish to visit the Midlands’ last example of Back to Back housing, you will need to book a tour.
Email email@example.com with your mobile or contact number, date, number of people and time. They will then call you back to book you in. If your enquiry does not contain the above information it will delay their ability to make your booking and you may miss your desired time slot. Or
The National Trust tour takes you around the four houses which are typical back to back housing. This means they have eight flights of steep and narrow stairs. If this can pose a problem for you, then do not worry, they have a way for you to see their property without climbing the stairs.
Standard tours: Their standard tours, that includes the stairs, go round in groups of eight and take approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes to go around the property with your guide. Along the way, there are chances to stop after climbing our stairs if you need a rest.
Ground floor tours: For those who find climbing our stairs difficult or an impossibility, they have a tour designed with you in mind. The tour takes approximately an hour with your guide, where you visit the ground floors of the houses as well as visiting the brew-house and the courtyard which are all fully wheelchair accessible. You will experience the whole of Court 15 and you won't miss out on any of their story. The only thing you'll miss is the stairs. Each ground floor tour must have a minimum of 2 and maximum of 4 people.
How to book: Like all the tours they offer, ground floor tours need to be booked in advance. Please call them on 0121 666 7671 to make your booking.
Take a tour around the Birmingham Back to Backs to experience life here and meet characters from the 1840s to the 1970s.
Buildings frozen in time: From the 1840s to the 1970s, see how people lived and worked in their courtyard. Come and see the bedroom-come-workshop of Mr Levi, see the meal-time ready kitchen of Mrs Oldfield and take a peek at George Saunders' tailor's shop and see what he's been making.
Set in the heart of Birmingham: Planning on spending a day or longer in the city? Then visiting the Back to Backs is an easy thing to do. Set in the city centre, they are a stone's throw away from other city attractions and areas of retail therapy. And as the tour of the property takes just over an hour, it can easily fit into your day's plans.
Like to shop? They have got ranges of Back to Backs and Birmingham themed products and a shop to go along with them. So come browse and see which piece of them you want to take home with you.
Hungry? If you fancy a snack or a full meal, then they are only a short distance from good food and drink. As they are a small property, they don't have room for a tea-room, but they are across the road from two good pubs, a cafe and they are in the heart of China town. They are also a short walk away from the Bullring and the new boy in town, Grand Central.
'Candies', the Back to Backs' sweet shop located at No. 55 on the corner of Inge Street and Hurst Street, has a reputation for selling the best old-fashioned sweets in the city and is well-known both to Birmingham locals and to those from further afield.
The appealing window displays, the wide array of boiled sweets, biscuits, toffees, chocolates, fudges and lollipops on sale, packaged in pink-and-white striped paper bags as well as the beautiful 1930's décor of the shop draws treat fans in their droves each year. As well as presenting ample opportunities for the indulgence of one's sweet tooth, however, the shop also has a fascinating history.
The premises at No. 55 were first used as a shop in 1901, but it wasn't until 1930 when local Birmingham shopkeeper Arthur Bingham took over the lease that the shop began to sell sweets. Arthur and his family ran a successful business selling English-made, traditional sweets for 36 years before it was sold to a Cypriot businesswoman. The shop continued to sell sweets until the 1970's when it transformed into 'Oscars', selling a very different kind of treat in its new guise as a kebab house.
In 2004, when the National Trust acquired and renovated the dilapidated court of back-to-back houses occupying Hurst and Inge Street, they also restored the shop to it's original function as a traditional sweet shop. The next decade saw the shop leased by the conservation charity to different sweet retailers before it was taken back under the management of the Back to Backs team in 2014, becoming 'Candies' once again. Though 'Candies' serves as the meeting point for the group tours of the preserved houses at Court 15, the shop is also a thriving business in it's own right.
Not only does the shop cater to the afternoon and evening theatre-goers crossing the street from the Hippodrome shortly before curtain-up to buy bags of sweets for the interval; it also caters to a loyal core of regulars as well as visitors to the Back to Backs and passers-by, unable to resist the treats on offer in the window.
The shop is a feast for all the senses; walking in, the avid sweet-seeker is greeted by the sugary, mouthwatering smells emanating from jar upon jar of sweets which occupy the entire back wall of the shop from floor to ceiling. Having been restored to it's original 1930's décor, the shop is also a treat for the eyes, boasting an original working till (visitors are asked to approach with caution as the till's drawer snaps back at a speed which poses a danger to unwary hands), as well as a glass counter under which tantalising chunks of creamy Devon-made fudge sit, waiting to be eaten.
'Candies' also offers a nostalgia trip for visitors who are transported back to memories of their childhood by the old-fashioned sweets sold in the shop including sugar mice, violet creams, cola pips and coconut toasties, all sold by the quarter weight. In keeping with Arthur Bingham's original sweet shop, only British suppliers such as the South Wales-based company, Brays (which was founded in 1867 and produces a range of boiled sweets, toffees and nougat), are used.
So... sweet-toothed reader, if you haven't already visited 'Candies' at the Birmingham Back to Backs, what are you waiting for? Go visit them here in the city centre and indulge your senses by tasting a step back in time.
** – Facilities – **
** – Train Travel – **
Birmingham New Street ¼ mile: When leaving station, head for exit sign-posted "Southside" (on maps labelled "Hill Street Exit"). Upon leaving exit, turn left onto Hill Street and walk down hill. Cross dual carriageway onto Hurst Street and walk towards Hippodrome Theatre from where the Back to Backs is visible. Birmingham Moor Street ½ mile: At station exit, cross the road towards Bullring entrance but do not enter Bullring. Turn right to walk along St Martins Queensway, this will take you under a road bridge and bring you onto Smallbrook Queensway. Follow road till you reach a cross roads, turn left onto Hurst Street and walk towards Hippodrome Theatre from where the Back to Backs is visible.
Location : 55-63 Hurst Street/50-54 Inge Street, Birmingham, West Midlands, B5 4TE
Opening Times : Pre-booked tours only; Sweetshop 10:30 to 17:00.
Tickets : Group Adult £9.00; Group Children £5.20; Minimum group 10.
Tel: 01216 667671