Back-to-Back Houses and their Communities

  • University of York PhD researcher Joanne Harrison is working on an exciting project about the past, present and future of back-to-back houses and their communities in Harehills. Leeds Local and Family History Library is helping Joanne engage with the local communities, working with them to understand the neighbourhood, promote its value, and safeguard its future. Joanne writes…

We all know what a back-to-back house is – some of you may live in them now or have lived in them in the past, and I used to live in one too. I’m not from Yorkshire, so they came as a bit of a surprise to me when I first encountered them. I pondered the concept of a house with no back, and rooms stacked up on top of each other, and wondered who on earth would want to live in one of those. Well, a few years later, I did! That was in 2002, and I stayed for 5 years. Moving on brought mixed feelings – there were some obvious advantages, like not having to pay such careful attention to hanging my washing on the rotary line, and that got me thinking about privacy versus community. Yes, sometimes it might be nice to sit in your garden or on your doorstep and not feel like you’re on display, but then there’s a reassuring warmth that you get from smiling and saying hello to those people who you don’t know, but who pass your house regularly. And we can wonder whether this was the same for all the communities that have lived in back-to-back houses over the years. Harehills and the other back-to-back neighbourhoods may feel old to us, but back-to-backs started to be built in Leeds long before these houses were built.

The first back-to-backs were built accidentally. They were cropping up in many of the industrial towns in the Midlands and North in the late 18th century. Let’s go back to 1787 when they first appeared in Leeds. Now, if you can imagine a street, with a standard row of terraces on it, and to the back, they all have yards with walls between, which are accessed from ‘tunnels’ leading from the street. The population was growing, and you might think that the obvious solution is to expand the size of the town by making more streets with houses on. But no! What actually happened, was that one-sided houses were built to line the sides of the yards, backing on to the dividing walls. And when the neighbours all did it, you ended up back-to-back houses in little courtyards, accessed from tunnels leading from the main streets. And it must have seemed like a brilliant solution to the housing problem to some (and here I will add, the words developers and landlords and greedy), because before long, back-to-back houses were being deliberately planned and built in this way.

Let’s just imagine these courtyards for a moment. A narrow space with little light and ventilation, possibly a stand pipe for water in the middle, no sanitation, a mudbath for a floor, and in the worst case on record, more than 700 people in 34 houses. It doesn’t take much to realise that these would have been noisy, smelly and generally unpleasant places to live – in fact some people even kept pigs in their houses. The back-to-back courts provided perfect conditions for the spread of disease.

Figure 1 The first purpose built back-to-back houses were on Union Street and Ebenezer street, with Union Court giving access to the rear back-to-backs and cellar dwellings. (Image: Beresford, M., (1988). East End, West End: The Face of Leeds During Urbanisation 1684-1842. Leeds: The Thoresby Society, 203. Original in Lupton, F. (1906). Housing Improvement: A summary of ten years’ work in Leeds. Available in the Local and Family History Library).

And so, not surprisingly, the social and sanitary reformers of the time took it upon themselves to outlaw the building of back-to-backs. But there was opposition to this, and so for several years through the middle to later part of the 19th century, we had the introduction of by-laws which brought about improvements to the standard of accommodation. Dr Baker for example had put proposals forward to improve drainage, sewerage and paving, but seemed to be quite heavily influenced by recent Bills to ban the back-to-backs, and suggested that they needed regulation. The most significant change, was that back-to-backs started to be built on streets, just like we have in Harehills and the other back-to-back neighbourhoods, rather than the courtyard format.

Another reformer, James Hole, was considered to be a radical thinker but, even so, in his reports, articles and prizewinning essay, he still criticized the improved back-to-backs by kind of lumping them in with the court type, and failing to properly acknowledge the differences between. Back-to-backs had started to be banned in most of the other towns, but there was just no desire to do that in Leeds – the people loved them too much to give up their fight to keep building them.

By 1866, on one of Dr Baker’s recommendations, back-to-backs could only be built in blocks of eight with toilet yards between. Now clearly this was an improvement – although some of the streets were still quite narrow, there was more light, a better flow of air, more toilets per person, piped water to each house, and paved streets with drainage. But it wasn’t without its issues – and let’s talk toilets for a moment. You need to go, and everyone can see it. It’s not just your family who see you slip out of the house, but everyone in the street sees you walking a few doors down the street to the toilet yard, and then back again. To try and retain a modicum of privacy and avoid the morning rush, housewives would get up rather early to walk with the chamber pot to empty the night’s produce.

Figure 2 Stanley Terrace back-to-back houses built in blocks of eight with toilet yards between (Image: Available at Leodis.net).

So it still seemed primitive to the reformers, and characters such as Dr Barry and Mr Smith just couldn’t seem to make the distinction between those early overcrowded, disease-ridden courts, and the slowly improving back-to-backs on streets. But improvement continued, and by the 1890s the back-to-backs came to take on a standardised form. Streets were wider, many of the houses had front gardens, and an effort was made to include architectural features that might be found in middle class houses. Back-to-backs had a separate scullery; and an outside toilet shared with just one neighbour within the basement footprint of their houses, meant that there was no need for toilet yards, and houses could be built in longer rows again. Internally, many of the houses had a plumbed-in bath, and this was quite ahead of its time compared to other types of working class housing being built. Now let’s just make something clear, the houses had baths, most did not have a bathroom. The most common place for the bath was in the scullery under a lift-up worktop. But some houses had the bath in the bedroom – maybe they were even further ahead of their time than I have given them credit for, and they were in fact the first houses to have an ensuite area!

Figure 3 The three types of urban layout for back-to-back housing. Left – Street-lined houses in blocks of eight; Middle – Garden fronted houses in blocks of eight; Right – Garden fronted houses in continuous rows with integral, externally accessed toilets. (Image: Housing, Town planning etc Bill 1909. Statement of the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Citizens of Leeds. Available in the Local and Family History Library).

Figure 4 Superior back-to-backs in Darfield Place, Leeds. The presence of gardens allowed the ground floor level to be raised and accessed via steps, which had the benefit of positioning the basement at semi-subterranean level. The houses had an outside toilet positioned under the scullery, shared by each pair (Image: Available at Leodis.net).

Anyway, by the start of the 20th century, they were providing a popular and good quality standard of accommodation. But still they just couldn’t shake off the reputation for being unhealthy, disease-inducing houses, and much to the outrage of the Town Clerk and the people of Leeds, just as they made their final improvement, which was the incorporation of an indoor bathroom, they were banned. That was in 1909 but a loophole meant that those with permission to be built could still be built, and with the traditionally slow building industry in Leeds, and the first world war, the last houses were not complete until 1937. One thing you might all be asking is why did the people of Leeds love them so much? In the words of Maurice Beresford we only have a “rather desperate refuge in ‘cultural’ factors, of the sort that have produced local differentiation in the demand for fish and chips, Yorkshire pudding, Rugby League, and Lancashire hotpot.” So basically, we don’t know why – they just liked them because they did! And I like them a lot too.

As I said, I lived in one for 5 years, and I’d originally planned to make it into a slick minimalist home, like the sort you see on Grand Designs, but in the shell of a back-to-back house. That didn’t happen. The defining moment for me I think was when I was stripping out the first floor bedroom, and I pulled off some boxing, which I had assumed was covering a hole where the fireplace used to be. Well I can’t tell you how excited I was to discover the most beautiful, completely intact, original cast iron fireplace, complete with a discarded tram ticket in the grate! Wow, this house is amazing – I love it. And that was it. My house was going to be restored. I uncovered original doors, hidden behind tacked on panels, carefully removed layers of paint from the cornices so I could see the beauty of their design, took up all the carpets so I could see the floorboards, reinstated the little door at the side of the living room chimney, and took great care to look after this important piece of history.

And that is what we have all over Harehills. We can trace the development of the area from the 1890s, see which streets were built when, how designs, facilities and features improved and changed over time, and marvel at the amazing variety. Because yes, there is so much variety, it’s quite staggering. Have you looked at it? It’s not just monotonous rows of houses like Dr Baker had described. No! There are so many types of bay windows, original dormers, window lintels, stained glass patterns, brick friezes (those lovely fancy bits that criss-cross around the windows and sit under the gutters) – would you believe there are 90 variations just in the Harehills Triangle, and then there are the variations in house types, like the mid-terraces, larger end terraces, shop-houses and so on.

Figure 5 A small selection of the varied architectural styles found among the Harehills Triangle back-to-backs.

I got so excited by all of this, so much so, that my life has been changed by it. I wanted to know more, and my journey, fifteen years and counting, has shown me that the back-to-backs are locally and nationally important to the heritage of Leeds and the country. In Birmingham, there are only ten back-to-backs left and their rarity has led to them being turned into a National Trust museum. In Leeds we have 19,500, but we need to live in them and look after them – we don’t want a museum thank you very much! I want to share what I know, and work with the current custodians of that heritage, to work out how we can keep these National Treasures of Leeds, retaining and conserving them, while adapting them to our modern needs.

And so that brings me nicely to my PhD research in which I hope to:

  • find out what living or working in a Harehills back-to-back is like for current residents
  • identify what people value or dislike about the design and character, and the social and historical aspects of the houses and the neighbourhood
  • discover the memories of back-to-back living in times past, that have been passed on to the current communities
  • understand how people would like to live in their houses in the future
  • help the local communities find a long-term future for the houses that is compatible with their heritage and other values, and the way that their communities want to live in them.

Any adult (age 18+) who either currently lives in the Harehills Triangle area, or who has a link to the area dating to the late 19th/early 20th century can take part. There will be a variety of activities on offer including completing questionnaires, taking part in interviews/focus groups, having a historical survey of your house, creating video diaries and scrap books, and participating in historically-themed, and design-based workshops.

Figure 6 The Harehills Triangle area being studied in this research. ©Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Ltd. 2014 All rights reserved.

If you would like to find out more about back-to-back houses in Leeds:

Visit the back-to-back blog: https://backtobackhouses.wordpress.com/blog/

If you would like to find out more about the research and sign-up to take part:

Visit the website: https://backtobackhouses.wordpress.com/

Telephone: 0113 378 6982

Email: localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk

Or see the sign-up and information sheets which are available in the Local and Family History Library (Central Library, 2nd floor).

Key references

All sources except the title marked * are held by Leeds Library and Information Service.

Beresford, M. (1971). The back-to-back house in Leeds, 1787-1937. In S. D. Chapman ed. The history of working-class housing: a symposium. Newton Abbot: David and Charles. 93-132.

Beresford, M. (1980). The face of Leeds, 1780-1914. In D. Fraser ed. A History of modern Leeds. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 72-112.

Beresford, M. (1988). East end, west end: the face of Leeds during urbanisation 1684-1842. Leeds: The Thoresby Society.

Caffyn, L. (1986). Workers’ housing in West Yorkshire, 1750-1920. London: H.M.S.O.

Daunton, M. (1983). House and home in the Victorian city: working class housing, 1850-1914. London; Baltimore, Md., USA: E. Arnold.

* Gaskell, S. (1983). Building control. National legislation and the introduction of local bye-laws in Victorian England. London: Bedford Square Press.

Gauldie, E. (1974). Cruel habitations: a history of working-class housing 1780-1918. London: Allen & Unwin.

Harper, R. (1985). Victorian building regulations. Summary tables of the principal English building Acts and Model By-laws 1840-1914. London: Mansell Publishing Limited.

Hole, J. (1866). Homes of the working classes with suggestions for their improvement. London.

Housing, Town planning etc Bill 1909. Statement of the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Citizens of Leeds.

Muthesius, S. (1982). The English terraced house. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rimmer, W. (1960). Working mens’ cottages in Leeds, 1770-1840. The Thoresby Miscellany. Leeds, The Thoresby Society. 165-199.

Rodger, R. (1989). Housing in urban Britain, 1780-1914: class, capitalism, and construction. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan.

Rubinstein, D. (1974). Victorian homes. Newton Abbot, etc.: David & Charles.

Wood, S. (1991). Back-to-back: a look back at life in the old cobbled streets of Leeds. Leeds: Leeds Talking Magazine for the Blind Association.

Wood, S. (1993). More back-to-back memories: a further look back at life in the old cobbled streets of Leeds. Leeds: Leeds Talking Magazine for the Blind Association.

Wood, S. (1994). Even more back-to-back memories of life in the old cobbled streets of Leeds. Leeds: Leeds Talking Magazine for the Blind Association.

Yeadell, M. (1986). Building societies in the West Riding of Yorkshire and their contribution to housing provision in the nineteenth century. In M. Doughty ed. Building the industrial city. Leicester: Atlantic Highlands, N.J., Leicester University Press. 57-104.

Early Atlases of Britain: 1742-1818

A recent display outside the Information and Research department on the 2nd Floor of Central Library showcased some of the most interesting maps and atlases from our collections. Most dated from 1742 to 1818; these books are a valuable and fascinating part of our stock, which can be viewed on a reference basis. To consult the books please contact the department on 0113 37 87018 or via informationandresearch@leeds.gov.uk.

  • Chorographia Britannia; or a Set of Maps of all the Counties in  England and Wales [….] by Thomas Badeslade, surveyor. Printed in 1742 it was dedicated to his Royal Highness Frederick, the (then) Prince of Wales. Shelf mark: SR 912.42 BAD

  • Britannia Depicta; or Ogilby Improve’d [….]. This is a survey of all the direct and principal crossroads in England & Wales at that time. It was engraved by Eman Bowen in 1753. Shelf mark: SR 912.42 OGI

  • A Collection of Plans of the Principal Cities of the Great Britain and Ireland; [….]. The maps were drawn from ‘the most accurate surveys in particular, those taken by the late Mr Rocque, topographer to His Majesty. The monarch at the time would have been King George III. The maps were printed and sold by A Drury in 1764. Shelf mark: SR 912.42 DUR

  • Kitchen’s Post-chaise Companion through England and Wales; […..]. This Atlas claimed tocontain all the ancient and new additional roads, with every topographical detail relating thereto’. It was printed by Thomas Kitchin in 1767. A ‘post-chaise’ was a horse–drawn carriage used for transporting passengers or mail.
    Shelf mark: SR 912 ENG

  • Ellis’s English Atlas; or a Complete Chorography of England and Wales in Fifty Maps; […..]. Engraved by and under the direction of J. Ellis, it was printed for Robert Sayer in 1768.
    Shelf mark: SR 912.42 ELL

  • The British Atlas; Comprising a Complete set of County Maps of England and Wales […..]. All but two of the maps and plans were drawn by G. Cole and engraved by J. Roper under the directions of E. W. Brayley. The atlas was printed in 1810.
    Shelf mark: SR 912.42 B777

The atlases for this display revealed only a very small section of the huge collection of maps and atlases held at the Central Library. Previous articles are available, along with a research guide detailing the maps held at the Local and Family History department.

Dances, Death Rites and Dedications: The Art of Dying

  • by Adam Barham, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

Throughout history, death has inspired artists to create stirring and thought-provoking work. As death affects us all and invokes a whole range of emotions, there are myriad examples of death-inspired art. These include explorations of the nature of death, depictions of deaths and funerals, as well as dedications and monuments for the dead. Artwork of this kind provides an illuminating insight into different attitudes towards our mortality. It also provides a useful starting point for conversations about dying, death and bereavement. To mark the upcoming Dying Matters Awareness Week (8-14 May 2017) we have delved into our Art Library archives in order to showcase some death-related art books.

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Our first item is the wonderfully titled ‘The Dances of death, through the various stages of human life: wherein the capriciousness of that tyrant is exhibited: in forty-six copper-plates’. A Dance of Death, also known as a Danse Macabre, is a representation of a dance in which people are summoned to die by spectral personifications of Death. In each scene, Death enters to claim his victim and we see the nature of their death. Some deaths seem calm and dignified, others less so. Several versions of the Dance of Death have been produced. This particular version, published in 1803, includes etchings produced by an eighteenth-century printmaker called David Deuchar. The etchings are based on woodcuts produced by the sixteenth-century German artist Hans Holbein, although Deuchar made some alterations to Holbein’s work.

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Most versions of the Dance of Death show the dying moments of people from all walks of life, ranging from the most powerful to the most unfortunate. The intention is to remind us that death is the great leveller: everyone will die, regardless of their station in life. Our 1803 version follows this tradition, showing the deaths of kings, emperors, clergyman, farmers and beggars. This version also incorporates criticisms of those at the top of the social scale. In the depiction of a judge’s death, for instance, the judge appears to spend his final moments taking a bribe (see above). Criticisms are also levelled at those with dubious morals. The illustration of a gambler’s death, for instance, suggests that the gambler’s lifestyle has caused him to be claimed by the Devil as well as Death (see below).

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Our second item comes from the world of painting. ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’ explores a variety of paintings held by our close neighbours, Leeds Art Gallery. One particularly relevant painting is Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’ (below). Knoll’s painting shows a grieving Victorian family about to bury their mother in a country graveyard. The family includes young children, who have obviously lost their mother far too early. According to the guide, Knoll chose this subject to highlight the hardships of country life to his rich city-dwelling patrons.

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Our next item represents funerary art. Practised in most cultures of the world, funerary art includes any creative work produced in connection to repositories for the dead, such as graves or sepulchres. It can also include memorials and dedications to the dead. Some striking examples of funerary art can be found in ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’, published 1898-1901. Monumental brasses are brass sheets engraved with depictions or dedications to the dead; they are often found covering tombs in churches. ‘The Oxford Portfolio…’ contains rubbings of these brass engravings, all beautifully presented on large folio-size sheets.

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

We stay with funerary art for our last item. ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’ contains over 600 illustrations of stone tomb monuments from various centuries, including obelisks, headstones and incised slabs (stone slabs with designs engraved into their surface). The illustrations are rendered in a delightfully painstaking fashion; besides their value as an archaeological record, they are quite stunning to look at in their own right.

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Further examples of death-inspired artwork will be on display in the Art Library throughout May 2017. The display will feature books and images relating to artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Lady Butler and John Everett Millais.

May Day and Mrs Montagu

  • We couldn’t let today pass without a look at the holiday’s traditional association with chimney sweeps – the focus of our current ‘Sweepiana’ display at Central Library. Natascha Allen-Smith and Jonathan Wright investigate…

May Day is both a religious and secular occasion, celebrated as a devotion to the Virgin Mary but also a ceremony of dance and the crowning the Queen of May. It has been used as a fabled national day of aid for chimney sweeps – historically, their one day of holiday a year. Lots of stories from the books in Leeds Libraries’ Henry Collection relate to May Day.

‘The First of May’ poem and illustration (from London Town, 1883, by Ellen Houghton, part of the Henry Collection)

‘Jack in the Green’ was a character who would be recreated by people creating garlands of flowers and greenery to wear during the May Day celebrations. The rhyme above reads: Jack-in-the-Green from door to door, capers along with his followers four. As May Day mummers are seldom seen, let us all give a copper to Jack-in-the-Green.

Competition between different working guilds meant that, over the years, these wearable decorations became larger and more elaborate until they covered the entire man. Jack in the Green became associated with sweeps forever.

Portrait of Elizabeth Montagu (artist unknown)

In the eighteenth century, Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800) provided food, drink and support for chimney sweeps on May Day. She became a social reformer and represents a time of increasing interest in workers’ rights. With a focus on literature, she also led the push for female equality in education. For some years before her death, Montagu entertained sweeps every May Day in the courtyard of her house in London. ‘The Little Sons of the Brush’ would be bought sausages until they tired of eating. The Henry Collection frequently mentions her, as well as other reformers across more recent centuries.

To learn more about the history and traditions of chimney sweeps, as reflected in Leeds Libraries’ collections, visit Room 700 at Central Library, where the Sweepiana exhibition will be in place until Friday 5 May.

Remember the Dead and Fight for the Living

  • by Louise Birch and Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

Today is Workers Memorial Day, marking the sacrifice of those who have died as a result of their job, and reminding all employers and employees of the importance of looking after their colleagues. In front of Leeds Central Library, a new plaque was unveiled bearing the inscription: Dedicated to workers throughout the world who have suffered illness, injury or death as a consequence of their work. Remember the Dead and Fight for the Living.

Workers Memorial, 2017

Inside the library, a new display tells the stories of some of the tragedies that have taken lives at workplaces around Leeds, from incidents in local mills in the less safety-conscious 19th century, to more recent accidents like the Lofthouse Colliery disaster of 1973. One such tragedy, the effects of which have continued to be felt throughout the city for many decades, is the many lives lost as a result of asbestos contamination in Armley during the first half of the last century. The story is told below and, if you follow the links to the Leodis photographic website in the picture captions, you’ll be able to read comments from those whose lives have been affected first-hand by the events described.

25th October 1943. Asbestos factory of J. W. Roberts on Canal Road, Armley. Visit Leodis to find out more.

Founded in Armley in 1874, J. W. Roberts Limited was a textile producer based at the Midland Works on Canal Road. In 1906, the factory had begun manufacturing asbestos insulation and, in 1920, merged to form Turner & Newall Limited, whose asbestos-based products were exported worldwide, generating large scale profits for the company.

The manufacturing process resulted in the exposure to blue asbestos of all workers based in the factory, while the ventilation system discharged asbestos dust out into the surrounding area. Streets, homes and a local school were described as being coated in a blue-white dust, as though they were covered by a fall of snow.

The factory closed in 1959 and, in 1978, Turner & Newall Limited paid £15,000 to Leeds City Council to assist with the decontamination of the factory site. However, no reference was made to homes in the surrounding area. In the late 1970s, investigations led to the discovery of asbestos in homes adjacent to the factory, while a Yorkshire Evening Post inquiry brought to the attention of the public the dramatically high number of mesothelioma-related deaths suffered by former workers and residents who lived close to the factory. This series of articles related to what became known as the ‘Armley Asbestos Tragedy’.

The case was further championed by local MP John Battle, with a case finally heard in court in 1995, in which Mr Justice Holland found the following: “There was knowledge, sufficient to found reasonable foresight on the part of the Defendants, that children were particularly vulnerable to personal injury arising from the inhalation of asbestos dust… Reasonably practicable steps were not taken to reduce or prevent inhalation of emitted asbestos dust.”

Many of those affected by the asbestos died long before the companies responsible could be compelled to make recompense.

25th October 1943. J. W. Roberts, asbestos factory, on Canal Road. More information can be found on the Leodis website.