Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Romanticising The Victorian Era

I'm a history nerd. Specifically, I'm a Victorian history nerd, even more specifically, a local Victorian history nerd... you get the picture, Polly = history nerd. 

It breaks my heart that so many old buildings in my hometown of Birmingham have been brutally demolished. I long to go back in time for a day to explore the courts of higgedly-piggedly back to back slum houses. I'm obsessed with the back to backs, even though they're almost completely non-existent in Brum today. Birmingham had thousands of these squalid, badly built, cramped homes, and they were occupied right up until the 1960's. It's hard to explain the structure of back to backs, so here's a diagram I borrowed from google:

After doing some research on my family tree last year, I found out (much to my excitement) that some of my family lived in a back to back in inner city Birmingham. It makes sense, because tons of Brummies must have ancestors who occupied these filthy slums, due to them being very common. They were cheap to build and easy to cram into a small space - perfect for when demand for housing was huge due to rising numbers of industrial workers in the city.  

It amazes and saddens me that many modern day Brummies do not know that these houses existed, even when they once dominated Birmingham. Because of hasty slum clearances, we will never truly see what they were like. When ridding the city of its condemned homes in the 60's and 70's, the council/government did not take into account the importance of social history. I wish more of Britain's slums were saved. It's hard to comprehend that the vast, vast majority of the streets that our working class ancestors lived on have just disappeared. The Victorian era was hugely significant. It shaped modern Britain and created much of the country's infrastructure and technology. But countless structures have been destroyed from this important time. 

The National Trust have preserved what is boldly labelled as Birmingham's last back to back court. Although certainly the only totally intact court left in the city, I believe that several remnants of courts do still survive, but are unrecognisable, as they have been renovated, converted and turned into private homes or offices. It's brilliant to be able to tour the "last court" and be taken back in time to Brum's industrial heyday, learning about the real families that lived in the tiny houses in tours led by well informed guides, many of whom were born in back to backs themselves! 

Recently, the BBC broadcast a series called 24 Hours in the Past, in which celebrities were transported to the tough and merciless Victorian times, stepping into the shoes of our ancestors. They tried their hands at work in the dust-yard, coach house and pottery factory. The backbreaking, dirty and relentless jobs and by extension, overall life of Victorians that the series presented, made me realise that I romanticise the era a great deal. Most Victorians were working class. They worked from childhood in grimy, exhuasting and dangerous jobs, working long hours for little money. Money was then spent on food. You worked to live, and there was not much joy in life.  

The average working class Victorian spent zero percent of their earnings on leisure, whereas today, a huge chunk of wages go on enjoying life - eating out, going shopping and having a daily coffee at Costa. Although I often dream of going back in time for a day, in reality, I would hated being a Victorian. The National Trust back to backs are much nicer than they would have been in reality. Although they have been decorated in styles from the past, they are obviously a lot nicer, cleaner and generally more looked after than the real deal. In Victorian times, they were smelly, unsanitary, infested with cockroaches and vermin, coated with smoke and grime, and just horrible. 

At first I wondered why my grandparents had not told me about the back to backs and how my family lived in them. But they saw what the slums were really like. I'm proud of my working class Brummie background, as I'm sure my grandparents are. However, they probably don't feel enthusiastically towards talking about what they first hand witnessed as grubby, inadequate pigsty-like homes. I look at the back to backs with a nostalgic mindset, but my fondness for them would most likely be much lower if I had seen them in their true form. 

I like to envision a cosy and friendly atmosphere in the back to backs, where everyone knew everyone, kids played all day in the yard, countless washing lines created a maze of raggedy clothes, and the pub was a haven on every street corner. I romanticise what would have been an extremely hard life. It's amazing to think how much Britain has changed and developed in two hundred years. I feel very lucky to have been born in 1996, and eternally grateful to my ancestors for paving the way for our modern Britain. 



  1. What an insightful post, that was a wonderful read. The Victorian era has always been very intriguing to me. I feel you about being a history nerd: I myself am very interested in learning more about my background. I'm Korean, but I never got the chance to really get to know who my ancestors were, what life was like a century ago, so on and so forth. I would love to find the time to research someday!

    Your blog is lovely, let's communicate more often from here on out!

    xx Chaereen | Inspinkle

    1. Thank you so much! I think finding out about your ancestors is sooo fascinating! I hope you manage to get time to look into it soon :) Thanks for a lovely comment, I'm keen on communicating more! xx

  2. heeey! hope you have a great day! do you want to follow each other via bloglovin? if yes, just follow me there and i'll follow you back soon! http://www.bloglovin.com/blogs/anna-alina-3947784

  3. I love history stuff too - all those old houses are my favourite places to explore! I totally agree about how it's easy to romanticise things though, since we don't get to see the full picture of what life was really like then. I suspect it would have been far too hard for me to handle! :)