A “Virtual” Tour of The Back to Backs – part 20



A Virtual Tour of the Back to Backs – part 20

There is a hidden door next to the fireplace in the Levy’s top room (it was put in during restoration) that allows us to enter the next house. The top of the doorframe is very low – SO MIND YOUR HEAD!

We have stepped into the 1870s and immediately you can tell that this room is much smaller than the one we’ve just left. This is of course one of the “real” back to backs built by John Wilmore to increase his income from his Inge Street property.

There is a double bed next to the door that we came through and if you look carefully there are four pillows, two at the head and two at foot. This means that four people were sleeping in this bed – four young boys – sleeping head to toe. These are four of the sons of Ann and Herbert Oldfield.

The story goes that if you were in a family where there was a persistent bed-wetter and you were sleeping four to a bed, top-to-toe, there would be a race to get there first to sleep in the “shallow end”!

Next to their bed, hanging on a rope across the room, is a blanket – possibly described as a luxury Victorian room divider! On the other side of the blanket is another double bed. So, who is sleeping here? Parents? No.

Sisters? No.

Grandparents? – they are no longer with us!

It’s lodgers! So, what is going on here?

Things have changed dramatically. The Levys were probably paying about 5% of their income in rent. The Oldfields are paying over 30% – the demand for housing is so acute that landlords can charge what they like. Furthermore, these four boys were at one time sent out to work as soon as they could, so would bring in a few extra pence. But now, by the 1870s, they are having to go to school – it became compulsory, at the discretion of the local authority and Birmingham was leading the pack in making sure that the growing population was well educated. To compound the problem there was at this time no free education – so the parents had to pay for them to go to school.

The solution – pack the four boys into one bed and rent out the other one to lodgers!


Oldfield’s Top Floor from the “secret door” in the corner
The Oldfields’ top floor – the boys’ bed
The Oldfields’ Top Floor – both beds – with the room divider pulled aside
Click here – OVERCROWDING – John McCarthy – Born 1943