Saturday Snapshots of Privies and Prams!

This Victorian earth closet makes me think there;sa lot to be said for progress!
This, as some of you probably know, is a picture of a Victorian ‘privy’ or ‘earth-closet’,  with a couple of chamber pots stored on either side, and candles to provide some light. You’ll find this particular privy in the yard at Birmingham Back to Backs. There were once three others, just like it, and together they served 11 houses. Fortunately for visitors, while this one has been restored to show what life was like in the 19th century, there are also new loos which conform to 21st century sanitary standards!
This is probably not a topic for polite conversation but, should you wonder, there was no sewage system, so the  buckets were emptied by ‘night-soil’ men about once a week (though sometimes it was longer) and what happened after that I neither know, nor wish to know – and nor would you if you had ever used one. When I was young we used to visit my grandparents up in the hills of Donegal, and they had something very like this (but not as nice!) in the barn, and I can assure you it was far, far worse than anything you are ever likely to encounter when camping. 

The wash house, with some of its equipment lined up outside.
Anyway, I digress, so let’s get back to the Back to Backs. They get their name because they are built, quite literally, back to back (as well as side to side) – and they were erected, as cheaply as possible, just one brick thick, to provide homes for the poor, and it meant a lot of houses could be crammed into a small space. In the 19th century profiteering landlords and builders constructed places like this in towns and cities all over England. These ones were, apparently, better built than many, but they were damp, dark, very tiny, and probably very smelly, dirty and smoky.

Ready, steady, wash… my younger daughter
tries her hand at pounding washing with a
wooden ‘dolly’.
Birmingham Back to Backs, once known as Court 15, are built around a small yard, with a narrow alley leading into it, and one set of houses facing inwards, and the others facing out. The first was constructed in 1802, and others followed over the next 30 years. It’s thought there were four privies at one stage, and two wash houses (known locally as brew houses – Brummies obviously had a sense of humour), but there was no sanitation, and no water supply until a stand-pipe was set up in the yard in 1870 – before  that people had to walk to the nearest well and carry all their water back in wooden buckets, including the huge quantity needed to fill the copper boilers in the wash house, where cloths were washed and rinsed.

The results of her efforts – but she’d rather
use a washing machine.
Amazingly Court 15, standing in the shadow of the Hippodrome Theatre, survived slum clearances, the devastation caused by German bombs during the Second World War, and modern redevelopment.  It’s possible they were overlooked because the ‘outer’ properties became small shops, but the buildings got more and more run down. In 1988 they were ‘listed’ but no effort was made to preserve them. Eventually, in 2001 a campaign was mounted to save them, and they are now run by the National Trust. To visit, you have to book in advance, for a guided tour, but it’s well worth the money, and the guides, who are all volunteers, are really knowledgeable and very entertaining.

This ewnovated house looks quite clean and pretty,,
but inside is dark and pokey, and th yard would
have been very dirty.
Three of the inner houses have been restored, decorated and furnished – one in the style of the 1840s, another as it would have been in the 1870s, and the third as a 1930s home. A privy and wash house, which also look into the yard, have been recreated, and the National Trust shop and office are in one of the outer houses, with an excellent museum above. Another of the outer buildings has been fitted out as a 1930s sweet shop, jars full of sweets I haven’t seen since I was a child, including Fruit Salads and Edinburgh Rock.

Plants grow anywhere!
The houses are three stories high (most back to backs were just on up, one down),, with one small room on each floor, and no bathrooms or kitchens, just a tiny, dark scullery, the size of a cupboard, in a corner of the downstairs room. The scullery had a sink, and shelving, but no cooking facilities, and it seems the fires were not designed for cooking, although people may well have done so. Our guide told us people probably bought hot food from street vendors and pie shops – the fast food outlets of their day. They are lit by candles, and there are coal fires burning on the hottest of days, so you really do get a sense of what it must have been like here all those years ago. Sadly, I can’t show you any pictures of the interiors, because no photography is allowed inside.

When the weather was fine mothers left their babies
lying in their prams in te sunshine in the yrd.
 In the yard outside are lines of washing; a bicycle; flowers, herbs and vegetables growing in old buckets and a tin bath; various items from the wash house – and some old prams. Once women would have left babies outside while they got on with their work, and the older children would have played games. Originally the yard had an earth surface, and must have been a sea of mud in bad weather, so I imagine things were much cleaner when it was bricked over.

As part of the Back to Backs project, people who lived and worked in Court 15 and the surrounding area recorded their memories, and researchers traced the history of families who were there in the 19th century.  I came away convinced that progress is a wonderful thing – no-one should ever have been expected to live n conditions like that. But I was surprised at how resilient and resourceful the tenants were, using their skills to try and better themselves. By the end of the 19th century  the ground floor rooms of all the outer houses had been turned into shops, with the enterprising families who ran them living in the two upper rooms. And many of those living in the inner houses set up workshops in their homes – one man made glass eyes!
For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice’s blog

63 thoughts on “Saturday Snapshots of Privies and Prams!

  1. Yes, modern plumbing has a lot going for it! I do like the picture of the prams, though. It's much better to imagine the days when nurses took they little charges out for a stroll in a pram than to think about what happened to the full chamber pots at night…..

    Here's my Snapshot.


  2. I know! I guess the rich and poor weren't too different with the prams – nannies must have sat and gossiped with a baby asleep in the pram, just as the poor women stood at their doors in the yard and chatted while their babies took a nap.


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