Back to back Smiles
By Carl Chinn
A throng of short streets strikes
out from the main drag. Each has a different name, but all of them are the
same. They are dark, noisy and pungent. Smoke belches out of countless
chimneys, sounds clamour from every direction and smells waft upwards from
innumerable buildings. There is so little space and yet so many people
pour into such a small area. They've been pulled in by industry and
they're held fast by work, familiarity, neighbours and kin. Some of them
live in front and back houses - they've got two rooms downstairs - but
most crowd into the hundreds and hundreds of back-to-backs.
Lathes, horse's hair and plaster. It's
not surprising that stinking bugs, slithery silver fish, vile black bats
and other foul vermin infest the houses - no matter how hard the women
graft to keep them clean. And when a new babby is born, the crib is made
up from one of the drawers, or else from an orange box from the local
Downstairs, there's a pokey
scullery filled with just a sink and a couple of shelves, and there's one
main room. This does for almost everything. With the big black range, it's
a kitchen. With a table and chairs, it's a dining room. And with its
squab, it's a living room. For mothers it's also a work room. Here they
iron and clean. If they're poor, it's here that they work on carding
buttons and hooks and eyes, at chopping up and bundling firewood, and at a
multitude of other hard and weary tasks to stave off hunger.
Some back-to-backs front on to the
street itself, but most are approached up a tight and low entry which
leads into a yard. This has a number of communal facilities; there's a
brew'us in which the women do the washing; there's the miskins where the
rubbish is put; there are two or three lavatories shared between six or
more families. And, until the late 1930s, there's a tap which supplies
water for all the folk who live in the yard.
Strangers shrink from the areas which
are packed with back-to-backs. They see them as dreary places, rocking
with noises and polluted by the whiff of gas, steam and horse manure.
They're right. The outlook is gloomy. it's loud and the atmosphere is
filled with stenches. But they miss something. Here, where the environment
is so hostile, there are people bonding together, Here where there are
slums, there are neighbourhoods.
No-one can mourn the destruction of
insanitary, decrepit back-to-backs. But in sweeping away the
back-to-backs, we failed to see the kids who played safely on the streets,
the women who laid out the dead, who brought babies into the world and who
had remedies. The back-to-backs of Brum may have gone - but the Brummies
who lived in them still have something to teach us about living together.
Reproduced from Our Brum Vol 2 by kind permission of
The Department of Modern History,
The University of Birmingham,
Click on cover picture for full size
Dr Carl Chinn MBE is a passionate Brummie born and bred. He is a
Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. He is a Radio Presenter
with shows on weekday afternoons and Sunday Lunchtime on BBC Radio WM.
Carl also the author of many books about
Brum and has a new monthly magazine published called