Vacation Corner: The way we lived in Britain
England was the first country in the world to be industrialised. From the middle of the 18th century, development of steam powered industries led to a revolution in the production of goods and agricultural products. Towns situated by coalfi elds greatly expanded as new factories were built and workers moved to the towns.
Improvements in agriculture resulted in increased population in the countryside where most people lived at the time. Since more machines were being used on the land there were fewer traditional labouring jobs. Soldiers returning after the end of the Napoleonic Wars added to the workforce. Lower wages off ered by farmers meant living standards in the countryside declined with people often living in conditions little better than those of their animals. Accommodation in the towns, although cramped and dirty, was much better than in the countryside. In the countryside people were often only hired for a year, the contract having to be haggled with the farmer and renewed the following year. The new industrial towns, with their manufacturing industries, off ered regular paid employment. This resulted in a large migration of workers to the new towns.
Factory owners soon realised that they needed houses for their workers to be in easy reach of their factories. Originally these towns had grown in an irregular manner but soon they ran out of space, so the question was, how and where to house the workers?
This was an age before it was possible to build cheap blocks of fl ats. Houses with four or more fl oors had been built in cities like London but they were expensive and designed for rich people. Traditionally workers’ houses in the towns had two fl oors and were joined together in rows along the streets called terraces. They each had a back yard that would allow space for an outside toilet and a coal shed. The houses had a frontage facing the street and the back yards had an access via a narrow path that served two rows of back yards between the houses. With the shortage of space in the new towns it became more and more diffi cult to fi nd room for this type of terraced, back-yard house.
Later, development of the railway and trams meant that the wealthier classes could live some distance from their work, even outside the towns, away from the dirt and smell of the factories. However, the workers, who had less money, and worked long hours, had no option but to live close to their work, often in walking distance.
To overcome the housing problem, property speculators hit upon the idea of building rows of terraced houses where the houses could be accessed from both sides. The previous back doors became another front door with a division along the centre of the house creating two houses for the space of one. The space for a back yard now contained another house and would also allow space for a new street. This means that two dwellings could occupy the space taken by a traditional back-yard terraced house. This is the back-to-back house, which is only found in Britain.
In 1787 by an organisation established to provide cheap housing for the poor. The houses were of a high quality for their time and the idea rapidly spread throughout the industrial towns. Liverpool, which had seen rapid growth as a major port trading with America, had expanded greatly by the 1840s and the Town Council (the local government for the town) became concerned about the poor, often squalid conditions, that many workers were living in. In 1842 they supervised the building of the first Council owned housing for low paid workers. These were back-to-back houses designed to include better sanitation to combat the high incidence of disease, then rife in all the major towns in Britain. Previously, many older semi-derelict houses had been bought up by landlords and subdivided with each family crammed into a small room with little regard for sanitation. The first national building regulations were passed by Act of Parliament in 1854 to improve the quality of housing in Britain. This was after several major cholera outbreaks in the new towns. Bradford was also one of the fi rst towns to adopt back-to-back houses. This was a traditional wool town that expanded its weaving industry in the late 18th century. In 1774 the Bradford Canal was built connecting Bradford across the country with other major industrial towns, allowing export of woven woollen goods, such as cloth, for clothes. Already by 1800, the number of factories and population had dramatically expanded. The fi rst back-to-back houses in Bradford were 17th century worker’s cottages that were converted in the1820s. One existing cottage was converted into four dwellings, each with a fi rst fl oor and ground fl oor room and a room by the side for washing dishes and preparing meals, called a scullery. The main ground fl oor room contained a range, a type of cast iron, built-in coal burning stove used for cooking.
Many cities like Birmingham, Sheffi eld and Leeds were soon building large estates of back-to-back houses. Their rapid expansion meant that they were running out of space, hemmed in by rivers, hills, and existing buildings. Back-to-back housing off ered a practical solution to this urgent housing problem. Some were built by the Town Councils but most were built by private speculators to rent out to working families. Various local planning laws made certain that the new houses provided a reasonable standard of accommodation.
In Birmingham, back-to-back houses were often built around a courtyard, like a miniature town square. Each side of the courtyard contained a row of buildings, each with two dwellings, one facing the outside street and the other facing inwards towards the courtyard. The courtyard contained the communal washhouses and outside toilets, etc. The access was via a small covered passageway, through the building, from the street. Some of these houses still existed in the 1960s.
Leeds is a good example of a large industrial town where large numbers of back-to-back houses can still be found. Like Bradford, it was a weaving of woollen cloth, and making clothes and carpets. The construction of the Leeds and Liverpool canal, in 1816, assisted the town’s expansion similar to that of Bradford. Leeds, like Bradford, was close to the Pennine Hills where the sheep were reared and the wool was taken to the towns for processing after shearing. With the development of weaving machines the town (which later became a city) expanded rapidly swallowing up the surrounding smaller towns which were also involved with similar trades. Cholera epidemics killed 3,000 people in 1832 and in 1849. Back-to-back housing was seen as a way to combat this problem. Sewers, which eventually reduced the outbreak of disease in the towns were not built in Leeds, until after the end of the 1850s.
The streets of back-to-back houses, in Leeds (Fig. 5), were well planned with blocks of four to six houses separated by communal yards where outside toilets were installed. At the end of the street there would be specially built corner shops to serve the community (Fig. 7). Leeds produced some of the highest quality back-toback housing in Britain. The houses were two, or often three stories, high with many also having a cellar to keep the coal for heating and cooking. Each plot averaged 20 square metres whilst the average in the rest of Britain was just over 11 square metres.
The houses were accessed through the front, and only, door which led to a passageway often with a cupboard or a door giving access to a cellar at the end. On one side there was the kitchen, and general living room, with a range for cooking. On the other side was the parlour. This was a room where the best furniture and ornaments were kept. In the 19th century it was fashionable to have such a room which was only used on Sundays to entertain family and visitors when everyone was in their best clothes. A narrow, steep staircase led to the first floor where there were two small bedrooms and in some houses a small staircase led to a bedroom in the attic. The parlour and main bedroom would be heated by open coal fi res with chimneys set into the end wall of the building.
So what was it like to live in these houses? I asked a resident who had lived at no. 5 Paisley Grove, Armley, Leeds, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This was in a row of high quality back-to-back houses built in about 1910. This row included a very small front garden. “The houses were very warm and comfortable”, he said. “We lived most of the time in the kitchen, though most of our neighbours called it ‘The scullery’. The range provided the heating, the oven and a hot plate, where my wife cooked. Every day the ashes from the fi re had to be emptied through a small door at the bottom of the range. The iron from which the range was made was kept from rusting, by polishing it once a month with a graphite paste. Every Sunday a fi re was lit in the parlour”. “What about heating the rest of the house?”, I asked. “The range often provided enough heat for the whole house because the houses were quite small, but in the winter a fi re was sometimes lit in the small bedrooms, above. Usually when it was cold, we and the children took hot water bottles to bed with us. These were stone bottles fi lled with hot water. We often wrapped them in an old jersey for the children so they didn’t burn their feet.” “Were there still outside toilets in the time when you lived there?” “Oh, yes. We shared a toilet with a next door house. There was also a wash house for washing clothes. The clothes were dried by hanging them on a line which stretched across the street.” ”What about washing yourself?”, I asked. “We had common washing facilities that were shared between the houses situated in the little yard by the side of the house. Some people in the surrounding streets still used tin baths which were placed before the fi re in the kitchen. They were fi lled with water heated on the range. They would normally bathe only once a week,” he continued.
”There was a great community spirit in the area and everyone would help each other. Nearly everyone living in the area had been born there. Even people who were born on the other side of Leeds were considered foreigners. There was one person living near us; we called him ‘The Pole’ because no one could pronounce his name, he was the only foreigner in the area.” Today the situation is very diff erent. There is a high Asian population in Leeds and many of these, together with students from the university, are living in areas of cheaper housing dominated by back-to-back housing.
Although back-to-back houses were usually built in towns in the northern part of Britain there are exceptions. Reading, in the south of England has some streets of back-to-back houses fi tted into areas where older houses had been previously demolished.
Reading developed close to the River Thames, and being only 64 km from London, was an important agricultural market town. From here agricultural produce could easily be sent to feed London’s growing population. Later, it became an important railway junction attracting major food factories and thus the need to house large numbers of workers. Back-to-back houses continued to be built in the early 20th century despite a law passed in 1909 banning their construction. This was due to increased expectations in the quality of living standards by people in the early 20th century which considered that these houses now posed a health problem. The concerns were poor air circulation, no second exit in case of a fi re, and a high population density which might encourage disease. Some cities, like Leeds, were exempt from the Government Act passed in 1909 and they continued to build back-toback houses until 1937, which is why Leeds contains the largest areas of back-to back housing still found in Britain today.
Building technology improved in the 1920s and 30s. It was now possible to build cheap blocks of multistory flats using concrete and steel like those we see in towns all over Europe today. Gradually older streets of back-to-back houses were replaced. Many more were destroyed by the bombing during the Second World War. However, most were demolished and replaced by large multi-story flats in the 1960s and 70s when the British government paid towards the cost of redeveloping areas of poor quality housing.
Today this style of housing is a unique part of Britain’s social geographical history. Many were well built and are still in good condition. The majority were modernised in the 1970s when a room was converted into a proper bathroom, and in places like Leeds they provide an interesting area of study for geography and history students from all over the world.