A “Virtual” Tour of The Back to Backs – part 13



A Virtual Tour of the Back to Backs – part 13

The poor health of Birmingham’s population and the appalling state of the houses they lived in was apparent from the 1870s and eventually it became the concern of the Town and later the City Council. It was believed that the poor state of health was down to a lack of light and fresh air in courts of back to back houses.

Council workmen and officials were sent into all the courts of back to back houses to paint the courtyard walls white and into the houses to encourage the occupiers to open their windows. However, it was said that the occupier often “hated fresh air as much as the holes in the roof of his house”.

In 1873 Joseph Chamberlain (who went on to build and live in Highbury Hall in Moseley) became the Mayor of Birmingham and spearheaded the movement to improve the lot of the town’s people. He went on to ensure that all residents had access to piped water and that mains drainage

In 1901 John Nettlefold, a relative of Joseph Chamberlain and son of John Sutton Nettlefold of the Guest Keen Nettlefold (GKN) company, became responsible for the city’s housing. It was still thought that lack of air in the courts contributed to the poor health of the residents. Nettlefold started ordering the demolition of some of the back to back houses that faced the street to open up the courts, these became known as the “Nettlefold Courts”. 

At the end of the Great War, with servicemen returning from the trenches, the government launched a scheme called “Homes for Heroes”. However, the plan giving local authorities the responsibility to build “council houses” was slow to get off the ground. The depression in the 1930s did nothing to help, and then World War 2 accounted for the loss of around two million houses, across the country, in the blitz.

So, what was going on in Court 15?

4-7 Lincoln Place in Garrison Lane in c1905
The end of the courtyard in Court 15 after restoration with the freshly whitewashed walls
A court in Cromwell Street – Nechells in 1905 with whitewashed walls
Joseph Chamberlain
John Nettlefold (jnr)
Oxford Terrace off Icknield Square c1967 – an example of a “Nettlefold court” where the houses facing the street had been demolished
Children of Birmingham in 1898
Court 10 Hurst Street which was just across the street, opposite Court 15