15 September 2023

Birmingham’s restored
‘Back-to-Back’ houses
are part of Jewish
history and heritage

A Jewish family named Levi lived at 50 Inge Street the Birmingham Back-to-Backs in the 1840s and 1850s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The Jewish High Holy Days begin this evening. Rosh haShanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה) is ‘the head of the Jewish year’ and begins at sundown on the eve of Tishrei 1, which this year is this evening, 15 September 2023 and ends after nightfall on Tishrei 2, 17 September 2023.

My recent self-guided walking tour of Jewish Birmingham, included the Birmingham Back-to-Backs at Inge Court on the corner of Hurst Street and Inge Street. These are one of the last remaining back-to-backs of early 19th century Birmingham and are in the heart of Birmingham’s former Jewish Quarter.

Many Jewish families lived in these Birmingham Back-to-Backs at Inge Court. One of the earliest Jewish schools in England, dating from 1843, was in Hurst Street, although no trace of the school remains today.

Inge Court represents a housing type that was once prevalent in industrial cities in the early 19th century. They were originally run up by speculative builders to house ‘respectable’ working class families with modest incomes.

These type of small, two- or three-storey terraced houses were built back-to-back around a shared, central courtyard. But, in time, they gradually descended into slums. The Public Health Act 1875 meant that no more back-to-backs were built, and byelaw terraced houses took their place.

The restored Back-to-Backs are at 55-63 Hurst Street and 50-54 Inge Street. The earliest of the series of four reconstructed interiors dates from the 1840s when the house at 50 Inge Street, built in 1809 and converted into a back-to-back pair around 1821 and was occupied by a Jewish family named Levi.

The Birmingham Back-to-Backs on the corner of Hurst Street and Inge Street … among the last remaining back-to-backs from the early 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

By the end of the 18th century, the Inge family, after whom Inge Street is named, owned the land on the west side of the street, while 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.

Sir Thomas Gooch leased the land to John Willmore, a local toymaker, in 1789. It was agreed that within a year, Willmore should build two or more large houses. But Willmore failed to do this and Court 15, as well as Court 14 beside it, 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.

Court 14 was completed in 1802 by Joseph Willmore, a silversmith. It consisted of six front and 11 back houses with some workshops on the larger south end of the building plot. At first, 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, built a house and workshop for himself. By 1821, No 50 Inge Street or 1 Court 15 had been converted into a pair of back to backs. No 52 Inge Street or 2 Court 15 and No 54 Inge Street or 3 Court 15 were built about 1830. The terrace along Hurst Street was built in 1831.

Throughout the 19th century, the court was occupied by the families of workers in industries such as button making, glasswork, woodwork, leatherwork and tailoring and were skilled craftsmen in the jewellery and small metal trades, many of them working from home.

A Jewish family named Levi lived at 50 Inge Street in the 1840s and 1850s. The Levis originally came from Eastern Europe and included one daughter and three sons. The father was an ‘outworker’ in the clock and watch industry, making clock and watch hands from his home. The Levi children would have gone to the school in Hurst Street, started in 1843 and one of the earliest Jewish schools in England.

Joseph Barnett, a travelling jeweller, lived at number 35 Inge Street in 1851, with his wife Hanna, and four children, Samuel, Eli Louis, Rebecca and Henry.

The Mitchells, a family of locksmiths and bellhangers, lived in the court from the 1830s to the 1930s. At one time, they were living at both No 55 Hurst Street and No 54 Inge Street or 3 Court 15. The family also worked at the workshop in the court for over 70 years.

The Birmingham Back to Backs have been restored and opened to the public (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The ground floors had been converted into shops by 1900. They included a cycle maker, a hairdresser, a ticket writer, a fruiterer and a furniture dealer. Some of the upper floors had become workshops. But most of the buildings continued in residential use until 1966 when they were declared as unfit for habitation.

By the early 1970s, almost all of Birmingham’s back-to-back houses had been demolished, and the residents were rehoused in new council houses and flats.

The court was listed Grade II in 1988, and in 1995 Birmingham City Council commissioned the City of Hereford Archaeological Unit to survey and record them. The Birmingham Back to Backs were restored by the Birmingham Conservation Trust in collaboration with the architects ST Walker & Duckham, and opened to the public in 2004.

The Back-to-Backs are in the care of the National Trust. 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 an L-shape. The houses are very small and tours contain multiple steep, winding flights of stairs. All the buildings are three storeys tall with one room on each floor. Each of the four houses is decorated and furnished as if in a different era: the 1840s, 1870s, 1930s and 1970s.

They are open from Tuesday to Sunday and on some public holidays, and a full tour lasts around 90 minutes. The visitor reception area is on the corner of Inge Street, directly opposite Hippodrome Square. Due to their small size, visits are by timed ticket and guided tour only, with no ‘walk-ins.’

In the words of the traditional greeting in Hebrew on Rosh Hashanah: Shanah Tovah (שנה טובה), ‘Have a Good Year.

Almost all Birmingham’s back-to-back houses had been demolished by the early 1970s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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