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.