Saturday, 30 June 2012

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 http://athomewithbooks.net/

63 comments:

  1. There is a lot to be said for the progress we have made:) LOL

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    1. Diane, I came away feeling that I would never, ever again feel nostalgic for the past! Life must have been so hard, especially for women.

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  2. This reminds me of where the family lived in Angela's Ashes from the descriptions I can recall. Thanks for sharing all of the history.

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    1. Thank you Jill. When I was a child there were still some houses with outside loos, although by then they were proper flushing loos - but there were usually spiders lurking in the corners!

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  3. That was quite interesting. Guess I shouldn't complain when the power goes out for a few hours and just be glad I don't live in the 19th century. You're right, I really don't want to know what happened in the privy during the night!

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    1. Leslie, it certainly made us feel grateful for what we have, especially the modern household appliances!

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  4. Thanks for the history lesson. That was interesting, except, well for the privy.

    We had an outhouse on the farm when I was a youngster that we used sometimes when we were outdoors or doing chores in the barn. I remember when we loaded the outhouse onto a pile of things to burn and watched it go up in flames. Dad said its time had come.

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    1. It must have been a wonderful moment to watch it go up in flames!

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  5. Oh, pix like these do make me grateful for advances! I actually had to use an outhouse until I was about four....and the pram looks like one of mine when I was a baby....Thanks for sharing, and for visiting my blog.

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    1. My Mother has photos of me in a pram that is very similar, and she has another one of me with my dolls'pram, with was a miniature edition - I guess prams must have stayed pretty much the same for many years, until the advent of baby buggies.

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  6. This was a great tour!! I know many of us long to go back to Austen's days but after this post I think flushing toilets and washing machines are where I will stay!!

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    1. Me too, Staci! I am so glad of all the things that make life easier and pleasanter.

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    1. It was a nice day out Emily, but I'm pleased we don't have to live like that!

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  8. Back to Backs is revelation of what it was during the earlier days. Appreciation of what is now should be honest and clear.

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    1. Thank you Edgar. Everybody's reaction seems to be the same.

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  9. I am glad we have made so much progress!

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  10. Wow, what a walk through a not so sanitary history. So glad we can look back and say we've improved.

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    1. Reading about s one thing, but seeing these places (which have been cleaned up and probably look much better than they did)really makes you realise how dreadful conditions must have been.

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  11. Whew, I'm glad we've progressed since those days!

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    1. Things were much better for wealthy people, who had better houses, and servants to look after them but for poorer people life must have been so tough.

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  12. Nice that people were able to innovative in their efforts to make things better. Those outhouses look awful, and my first thought was that I wouldn't want to be the one to empty the bucket. But thinking about how many people would have been using it and how rarely they were emptied makes one shudder.

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  13. Life looks like it was so much harder back then, but so much simpler!

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    1. I'm not sure life was simpler, but I do think people's expectations were different.

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  14. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Lord, that I did not live back then!

    Here's my
    Saturday Snapshot.
    I hope you will stop by!

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    1. I think most of the visitors felt like that!

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  15. Modern plumbing is a big reason I don't really want to live in the past. Reading historical fiction is enough!

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    1. Cheryl, I feel exactly the same way - and I certainly wouldn't fancy doing all the washing by hand, and filling and emptying the washtub, and boiling the water up....

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  16. Those are so great pictures! I am often thankful that I was born into this century and did not have to deal with some of the things they did long ago. Especially those privies, whew.

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    1. Thank you. I think it's good that the National Trust is involved with places like this, as well as with castles and stately homes - it gives a much more balanced view of history.

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  17. I was brought up in Birmingham Back to Backs, although by the time I arrived the bucket had been replaced by proper sewage pipes. I have 'fond' memories of winter evenings out there, when it was necessary to hang a small oil lamp next to the cistern in order to stop it freezing up. Happy Days!

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    1. Oh Alex, thank you so much for responding - it's nice to hear from someone who actually lived there.I hope I didn't offend you by concentrating on the grotty side of life (I stuck to the Victorians). I read the memories that people had written, which were on display above the National Trust shop, and I looked at all the photos, and the thing that came across really strongly, especially from the recent past, was the strong sense of community in the court.

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  18. Not at all, Christine. As I've said over on my blog in response to your comment there, it was a hard but a good life.

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    1. I am glad it was OK - I'd hate to upset to anyone.

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  19. Okay, I'll stop complaining about losing my electricity and my internet. Life used to be much worse. Here's Mine

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    1. I still moan about stuff like that - thinking that life used to be much worse just makes me feel guilty!

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  20. Well that was fascinating. I won't have to make reservations to go there because I feel like I have been there via your wonderful blog tour! I can't stand going into the temporary 'loos' that they put up at special events; I can't imagine living like this on a regular basis. The stench must have been overwhelming.

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    1. Thank you Sim. We take these things for granted, but the conveniences of modern life weren't always available.

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  21. Such an interesting post, thanks for all that work. We are all grateful for modern plumbing I think.I have vague memories of the nightsoil man coming to my grandfathers house, and being traumatised by needing to use his non-sewered toilet. I hate it how places don't let you take photos inside- nonflash photos can never harm anything! Still your outside photos are fascinating.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it Louise. I wish we had been allowed to take pictures, but the rooms were quite dark, so maybe photos wouldn't come out very well.

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  22. First time visit to your lovely blog.

    These photos are great. I do love our social history and I will remember these photos when reading my next victorian saga. :)

    Have a great weekend

    carol

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    1. Thank you - doesn't seem nearly as romantic when you how people
      lived!

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    2. Thank you. I like a nice romantic historic saga!

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  23. What a great set of photos. So pleased I live in the current era and not previous ones ;-)

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    1. We have a lot to be thankful for I think.

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  24. I do like looking round these types of houses - how ordinary people really lived in the past! Have you been to the house where D H Lawrence was born - absolutely fascinating, made more so when you realise that this was how our parents and grandparents lived. There were so many things that were familiar to me!!

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    1. I haven't been there, but I'd like to. It's a bit unnerving though when you see things from your own childhood in a museum or heritage site.

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  25. Yeah, those 'earth closets' would have been the death of me! I need my plumbing. I wouldn't have lasted a day in Victorian times. Those prams sure are cute, though.

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    1. When I small the prams were fairly similar, with a hood that went up an down, and they held a baby and a toddler, and all the shopping!

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  26. Life was hard back then. It must have taken all one's energy just to do the necessary tasks and survive. I don't think I would have liked it then!

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    1. Don't think I would have liked it either!

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  27. Thanks for all the interesting information.
    I'm all for progress. For parts of my childhood I lived on our family farm, before we got an indoor toilet. So, we had to go out to the barn. I mostly remember it being real cold in the winter, so we certainly didn't waste any time out there. :-)

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    1. Thank you Eva. I'm surprised at how many people have similar memories.

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  28. So glad to be living in today's day & age♫♪ Thanks for sharing!

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  29. So interesting! I've always said 'I should have been born in the victorian era'
    have a lovely weekend.

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    1. It's what's called 'living history' I think, but on the whole I prefer the present.

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  30. What a fun place to visit...I love seeing things like this, but definitely am glad I didn't live back then. :)

    Lovely blog.

    Elizabeth
    Silver's Reviews
    http://silversolara.blogspot.com

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    1. I'm glad you liked my blog - thank you for lovely comment.

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  31. 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.

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    1. 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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