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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (110) 15 September 2023

The Unitarian building near the Charles Bridge in Prague was acquired by Norbert Fabián Čapek and named ‘Unitaria’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIV, 10 September 2023). The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today recalls Saint Cyprian (258), Bishop of Carthage and Martyr (15 September).

The Jewish High Holy Days begin this evening. Rosh hahSanah (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.

Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

This week, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a Unitarian church I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Czech Unitarian symbol is inspired by the seal of the Czech education Jan Amos Comenius (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Unitarian Church, Prague:

Czech Unitarianism say it can trace its roots back to religious dissent as early as the 11th century and that Czech Unitarians draw on the thinking of both the Hussites and Socinians. The Czech Unitarian symbol was inspired by the seal of the Czech education Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670), the last bishop of the old Church of the Moravian and Bohemian Unity of the Brethren.

After the Enlightenment in the 18th century, Unitarianism spread throughout the region and its influence began to be felt in areas of philosophy, literature and politics, and the Unitarian Church in Moravia and Silesia was founded in 1777 in regions in what is now the Czech Republic.

Modern Unitarianism in the former Czechoslovakia was founded 100 years ago by the Revd Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942) 100 years ago. He was born into a Roman Catholic family in Radomyšl, in southern Bohemia, joined a Baptist church at the age of 18 and was soon ordained a minister.

Čapek travelled widely as a Baptist preacher, from Saxony to Ukraine in the east. However, his religious views became more liberal and anti-clerical. His writings attracted unfavourable attention from the German authorities, and in 1914 he and his wife, Marie, and their eight children fled to the US.

In the US, Čapek edited a Czech language newspaper and was pastor of the First Slovak Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. His wife died soon after they arrived in the US, and Čapek married another Czech expatriate, Mája Oktavec, in 1917.

Čapek faced two heresy trials in the US and Slovak Baptist ministers tried to expel him from the Baptist association. He resigned as a Baptist minister in 1919, and Norbert and Maja joined the First Unitarian Church of Essex County in Orange, New Jersey, in 1921 before returning later that year.

Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk, the wife of the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, was born in the US and was a member of the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn. She influenced Masaryk’s thinking, and it is said Masaryk had on influence Capek while he was still a Baptist minister.

Čapek formed the Prague community of the Liberal Religious Fellowship on 9 April 1922. The new Unitarian congregation rapidly and bought a large building near the Charles Bridge which they named ‘Unitaria.’ The early services included lectures, the minister wore no robe or vestments, and there were no elaborate rituals, hymn singing, ornate decoration, or formal or prescribed prayers.

In a parallel development, the early Czechoslovak Hussite Church, formed in the aftermath of World War I, also had many clergy who espoused a rationalist and Unitarian Christian theology, although this thinking was later abandoned.

Some members felt that the congregation lacked a spiritual dimension. In response, Čapek created the Flower Celebration or Flower Communion, and the first Flower Ceremony was held in Prague at the Czech Unitarian Church in Prague 100 years ago in June 1923. Each member would bring a flower to the church, where it was placed in a large central vase. At the end of the service, each would take home a different flower. The Flower Ceremony is celebrated by Unitarian Universalists worldwide.

Maja Čapek was ordained in 1926. With support from the American Unitarian Association and the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, Norbert and Maja Čapek acquired and renovated the meeting space. The Unitarian Church of Czechoslovakia or the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians was officially recognised by the Czech state in 1930.

The movement spread rapidly and attracted thousands of people to venues in Prague. The congregation in Prague became the largest Unitarian congregation in the world, but the German occupation and the Communist regime almost destroyed it.

During World War II, Norbert Čapek was invited back to the US but he chose to remain in Europe. However, Maja went to the US in 1939 to raise funds for relief efforts in Czechoslovakia, and she served as minister in the North Unitarian Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, from 1940 to 1943.

Norbert Čapek and his daughter were arrested in March 1941 by the Gestapo, who confiscated his books and sermons. He was sent from Pankrác Prison to Dachau in 1942. He was held in the ‘Priesterblock’, where he was tortured and eventually gassed late in 1942.

After his death, the president of the American Unitarian Association, Frederick May Eliot, wrote, ‘Another name is added to the list of heroic Unitarian martyrs, by whose death our freedom has been bought. Ours is now the responsibility to see to it that we stand fast in the liberty so gloriously won.’ Incidentally, Frederick May Eliot was a first cousin of the poet, TS Eliot.

Meanwhile, when Bishop Jan Schwarz was in office as the seventh Patriarch of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church (2001-2005), that church was divided between rival factions, with some refusing to accept his patriarchy and threatening division. He resigned when he was called before the church’s Episcopal Central Council in 2005, and later joined the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians.

Today, the Revd Dr Petr Dolák Samojský is minister of the Prague Unitarian Congregation in the Czech Republic. The head office of the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians is still at its original address in Prague’s Old Town and it includes congregations in Prague, Pilsen, Brno, Teplice, and other towns, as well as the International Unitarian Church of Prague.

The International Unitarian Church of Prague meets at the Unitaria Meeting Rooms, 5 Anenská, close to the Charles Bridge. It is a community of American, English, Czech, French, Irish, Russian and New Zealand people who meet in person or online on the first, second and third Saturdays of the month at 11 am and online each Wednesday at 7pm.

The Revd Mark Shiels, the minister of the International Unitarian Church of Prague, lives in London and Prague, and works as both a psychotherapist and a minister. He has served Unitarian congregations in London, the Wessex area and Cork. He is a psychotherapist and teacher, with a background in both the business and charitable sectors, and an MPhil degree from the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin.

The Charles Bridge in Prague … within walking distance of ‘Unitaria’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Luke 6: 39-42 (NRSVA):

39 He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 42 Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye”, when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.’

The statue of John Hus in the centre of the Old Town Square in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Holy Cross Day Reflection.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (15 September 2023, International Day of Democracy) invites us to reflect on these words:

Thank you, Lord, that we have the freedom to express ourselves and bring about democratic change. May we remember all who live in countries where this is not possible.

The Collect:

Holy God, who brought Cyprian to faith in Christ,
made him a bishop in the Church
and crowned his witness with a martyr’s death:
grant that, after his example,
we may love the Church and her teachings,
find your forgiveness within her fellowship
and so come to share the heavenly banquet
you have prepared for us;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr Cyprian:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The best-known ritual of Rosh haShanah is the blowing of the shofar, a musical instrument made from an animal horn. The common greeting in Hebrew on Rosh Hashanah is Shanah Tovah (שנה טובה), ‘Have a Good Year.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

In the streets of Prague at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org