Getting the Low Down on Birmingham’s History

We wake to the Doves in the Peace Tower just outside of Sameer’s flat when we get up in morning. They make the most wonderful sounds – and as we are on the 6th floor – watching them fly by is up close and personal.

We were joking last night – and asked Sameer if he had bats in his belfrey – but he didn’t get the joke! Instead he told us about how bats are protected animals in London. Nice to know – but not what we were laughing about.

This morning, Sameer dashes out before we are up – leaving us to fix our own breakfast from the fixings he left us – blueberries, bananas, oranges, milk, and an excellent Granola. There are also eggs – but we opt for a simple breakfast, lunch will be a bigger meal.

We have reservations for a tour at 10:15 at the Birmingham Back to Back Houses. We’ve been reading up on these houses – and the ones we will see are the last in existance – as late as the 1940’s there were thousands of people leaving in Back to Back Houses. They could be crammed in – up to 14 in what is effectively a 3 room house – under 900 sq feet in total – and some of that taken up with narrow spiral stairs that go from the first to the third floor.

Today these houses are in the heart of China Town, and adjacent to a large restaurant and bar complex, but in their day they were the key stone of lively neighborhoods. We were excited to take the tour.

The visit starts in front of a sweetshop, and our guide, Jane, begins by explaining that just before these houses were finally demolished in the 1970’s, they were mostly used as shops – and the sweetshop was what was in this location at the turn of the century. Back to Back Houses were built – surprise, surprise – back to back. So there are 3 houses with windows facing the road, and three more built against their back walls. These 3 houses have windows only on the ‘courtyard’ side. The entrances are street or courtyard level – and most of these houses had no running water and no toilets. Instead the toilets are located in the shared courtyard. In earlier times, these shared toilets were modified chamber pots, but eventually they were renovated to have ‘flush’ toilets. But you are still outside! In one of the houses, running water had been added – but only on the first floor. Water was never available above the first floor.

There is basically only one room on each floor – a living/dining/food prep room on the ground floor, a bedroom on the 2nd floor, and a 2nd bedroom on the third floor. The floors are linked by steep narrow twisting staircases – hard to go up, and frightening to go down. There is only one window in each room – depending on the house, facing either into the courtyard or into the street.

There was a fireplace in both the kitchen and ‘master’ bedroom – but while the kitchen fireplace was on from dawn till bedtime, the one in the ‘master’ bedroom was lit only when someone was feeling ‘poorly’. As for those sleeping on the third floor – crowding was the solution to a cold night. Families were known to put 6 kids in one bed, sleeping head to toe, and then renting out the other bed in the third floor bedroom to strangers!

So – no running water, no toilets, no sewer, and a central washing area that each family sharing the courtyard got to access once a week – life in the Back to Backs was not easy. There are audio tapes of folks who used to live here talking about what life was like. There was no reason to go home until bedtime, because there was nothing to do in the house except sleep. So kids ran wild and wooly all over the area – keeping themselves busy until going to bed was unavoidable.

And jobs, while plentiful, were neither well paying nor safe. Birmingham was at the center of the Industrial Revolution in England, and had more than it’s share of stuffy unsafe factories and challenging work environments. So Dad and the older boys would work all day – while Mom and the girls did the washing, cleaning, cooking, and sewing needed to keep the family together. Young boys went to school – a priledge rarely available to young girls in the UK until after 1870.

Back to our tour. The small block of back to back houses that has been saved has been extensively renovated. Of the three houses facing the street on the northern side, the bottom left is the sweet shop – and above that is ‘holiday’ let.. The center one is also a ‘holiday’ let, and the last one is used for storage by the National Trust. Of the back 3 houses on the north side, the one to the right is set-up to show life in 1840 – when this block was first built. The middle house is set-up as 1870, and the left most house is set as 1920. Of the 3 houses on the East side, the left most has been left as it was in 1970 when the last resident – a tailor – left. The center and right houses are now the welcome area, space for staff and an exhibit area. In the exhibit area you can see the 28 layers of wallpaper that were removed from one wall. Turns out it was much cheaper to just paste on new wallpaper – and that’s what happened.

We totally enjoyed the tour – our guide was very informed, the houses are very interesting, and unlike most museums – you are welcome to touch everything. I found the clock making tools in the house from 1840 particularly intriging.

Our tour finished, we decided to visit the rag market – which quickly gets boring, and then stop for traditional English Fish and Chips. Yum.

Now we stroll just a few blocks North and West – on our way to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The city changes drastically as we work our way these few blocks North. As we leave the ‘Rag’ Market – we also leave the majority muslim crowd and the boarded up and abandoned shop fronts. We pass the dramatically new Central Train Station – a huge Silver sphere shape that dominates the western view from St. Martins in the Bull Ring. Once on High Street – we are on a Pedestrian Mall with fancy shops, folks in nice dresses, and a general sense of well-being. What a drastic change from the rather scary feelings of the area near the ‘Rag’ Market!

Within minutes we are at Victoria Square – dedicated by the Princess of Wales (Diana?) in 1970. And just past that is the museum. And a glorious museum it is too. As with most of the museums here, it has a bit of everything – from Egyptian artifacts, a brief history of the Irish in Birmingham, to a room dedicated to the Stratford Hoard. The Hoard is impressive – and the rooms dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelite painters contain art that is both extensive and beautiful. But the absolute best part of the museum, despite the lack of any marketing, even on the museum map – is the 3rd floor display on the history of Birmingham.

We’ve seen histories that are as dull as paint drying, but this is not one of them. This series of rooms takes the history of Birmingham and makes it personal – entertaining – and facinating. The curators have used every trick in their books to make these displays interesting, and they are amazingly successful.

The fun starts in the Medieval Past – over 1000 years ago. There’s a model of the town showing clearly that the Bull Ring Market, St. Martin’s of the Bull Ring, and the High Street were already known in those days. A series of short videos featuring kids from a local drama department explains why Birmingham was growing by leaps and bounds in those days – a combination of a belief in freedom of religion, and the lack of a town charter. Without a charter, guilds couldn’t operate – so a free-for-all attitude took hold. Anyone could do anything – and folks flocked to Birmingham in response.

To cover the years during the industrial revolution the display becomes a ‘tourist guide’ to Birmingham. Hints include finding the best places for food, and cover the ‘building boom’ with humor and attention to detail.

Moving historically forward, there is a series of puppets who demonstrate how to make a musket, and a display of the hand made buttons that made Birmingham famous in the 1800s. There are model kitchens from the 1900s for kids to play at, there are build it yourself models to practice town planning in the 1920s, and a multi-screen video presentation on Birmingham’s participation in WWI and WWII.

The display ends with a nod to the issues of the present – including the recent announcement by BMW to close their plant, putting 6000 out of work.

It’s an outstanding example of the curator’s art – and a fabulous examination of the history of Birmingham in particular and England in general.

We are thrilled to have wandered in!

But now the museum is closing around us – and we are gently escorted out by the guides who have appeared from nowhere.

So it’s home, a lovely roast chicken dinner with wine at Sameer’s flat – and early to bed. Tomorrow we travel – and we need our rest.

Signing off to get our beauty sleep – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

One thought on “Getting the Low Down on Birmingham’s History

  1. I am SO happy that I didn’t live then as you know I love my showers and water. Ha ha
    Great descriptions. Makes me feel like I am there with y’all.

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