Candles, paraffin lamps, electricity . . . and a ‘rule of thumb’

Once there were hundreds. Now there’s just Court No. 15, the last remaining (and carefully restored) courtyard of working people’s houses just south of Birmingham city center on the corner of Hurst and Inge Streets.

Court 15 of the Birmingham Back to Backs, with the Birmingham Hippodrome on the north (right) side. Just imagine what the area must have looked like in earlier decades with street upon street of these terraced and back to back houses.

This is the Birmingham Back to Backs, owned by the National Trust, which we had the pleasure of visiting a couple of days ago, and enjoyed a tour led by knowledgeable guide Fran Payne. This National Trust property should be on everyone’s NT bucket list.

Court 15 was completed in 1831 and its houses were occupied as recently as the mid-1960s, when they were condemned. Commercial premises on the street side were still being used as late as 2002.

Court 15 was a communal space for upwards of 60-70 men, women and children, living on top of one another, in houses that were literally just one room deep: built on the back of the terraces facing the street. Just imagine the crowding, the lack of running water and basic sanitation, leading to the spread of social diseases like tuberculosis or cholera that were common in the 19th century. Just three outside toilets for everyone.

Since coming into its hands in 2004, the National Trust has developed an interesting tour of three of the Court 15 houses, taking in the lives of families from the 1840s, 1870s, and 1930s known to be living there then. The tour, encompassing very narrow and steep (almost treacherous) stairs over three floors, takes you into the first 1840s house, up to the attic bedrooms, and through to that representing the 1870s. You then work your way down to the ground floor, and into the house next door. From the attic in that house, the tour passes into the former commercial premises of tailor George Saunders who came to Birmingham from St Kitts in the Caribbean and made a name for himself in bespoke tailoring. When Saunders vacated Court 15 in 2002 he left much of the premises as it was on his last day of trading.

A Jewish family by the name of Levi, was known to reside in one of the houses during the 1840s. The Levis had one daughter and three sons, and like many other families, Mr Levi practiced his trade (of making clock and watch hands) from his home.

On the top attic floor of this house there are two rooms still accessible on the street side, but have never been renovated.

In the next 1870s house, occupied by the Oldfields, who had many children – and lodgers! – there is already a coal-fired range in the kitchen, and paraffin lamps were used throughout for lighting. The children slept head-to-toe in a bed in the attic room, shared with the married lodgers. Modesty was maintained by a curtain.

By the 1930s, there was already electricity (and running water) in the house, occupied by an elderly bachelor George Mitchell.

The premises of George Saunders are full of all the paraphernalia of the tailoring business. An old sewing machine, and another for making buttonholes. Patterns for bespoke suits handing from the walls, and bolts of cloth stacked on shelves. There are some half-finished garments, others ready to collect. Until his death, George worked with the National Trust to document the last years of the Back to Backs.

Throughout the houses there are many contemporary pieces of furniture and ornaments. My eye was caught by this particularly fine pair of (presumably) Staffordshire rabbits.

Finally, no visit to the Birmingham Back to Backs would be complete without a look inside Candies, a Victorian sweet shop on the corner of Hurst and Inge Streets at No. 55, purveyor of fine sweets that I remember from my childhood. What a sensory delight! In fact, tours of the Back to Backs start from outside Candies, so there’s no excuse.

And finally, what about that ‘rule of thumb’ I referred to in the title of this post. Well, while we were looking at the sleeping arrangements for the Oldfield children in the 1870s, Fran Payne reached under the bed for the gazunda, the communal chamber pot (‘goes under’). In the darkness, she told us, this how you could tell, with the tip of your thumb, whether a chamber pot was full or not. Dry: OK. Wet: time to go downstairs to the outside toilet in the courtyard.

I mentioned that our visit to the Back to Backs was very enjoyable, but it’s not somewhere that I would have made a special trip. We had to be in Birmingham on another errand, and since it was just a hop and a skip from the central Post Office, we took the opportunity. The Birmingham Back to Backs are a special relic of this great city of 1,000 trades.


A working-class movement for political reform

Less than 4 miles by road west of Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire (much less as the crow flies) lies the village of Dodford. Nothing remarkable in that, you might say.

Well, until 1849, the village didn’t even exist. The area was known then as Greater Dodford, but became a community (of sorts) when a ‘village’ of more than 40 redbrick cottages (like the one below, known as Rosedene) was built, each in its own 4 acre plot of land. That’s significant.

Feargus O’Connor

Rosedene was built by the Chartist Cooperative Land Company, and the Dodford community was the last of five that were set up around the country by Irish Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor.

So, what was Chartism and who were the Chartists?

Chartism was a national (but geographically uneven) working class movement, with violent and non-violent factions, campaigning for political reform between 1838 and 1857. The movement  was named after the 1838 People’s Carter that espoused six principles:

  • manhood suffrage (but not women)
  • the secret ballot
  • abolition of property qualifications for MPs
  • payment of MPs
  • equal electoral districts
  • annual elections.

Communities like Dodford were established to help working-class people satisfy the landholding requirement to gain a vote in county seats. That’s why each cottage was built on 4 acres of land, the minimum at the time to satisfy the landholding requirement to make a man eligible to vote.

O’Connor purchased a farm of more than 250 acres at Greater Dodford, and divided it into 4 acre plots for each cottage. The lanes around Dodford remain as narrow today as when first opened in the 1840s.

Potential occupants placed bids for the cottages, with the highest bidder receiving the ‘choicest’ plot, and so on until all plots had been allocated.

Having walked around the plot at Rosedene, I can vouchsafe that it’s a large plot for one family to manage. Many of those who came to Dodford were working class families from the cities, with little experience of agriculture. What they encountered at Dodford was a very heavy clay soil that was extremely difficult to cultivate. Eventually however, they established that strawberries did grow well, and opened up a market to Birmingham for their produce. Likewise, garlic thrived, which they sold to the makers of Worcestershire Sauce, Lea & Perrins, in Worcester, 15 miles to the south.

By the time Dodford was built, O’Connor had perfected his simple cottage design. Each cottage had a simple central living room with a range for heating and cooking, with a bedroom off to each side. To the rear was a small scullery and an indoor water pump. The ash toilet was in an outhouse (much like my grandparents’ cottage in Derbyshire that they occupied until the early 1960s). Maybe there was a pig sty attached to the enclosed small yard. Behind the cottage there is a small barn.

Bricks for each cottage were made on site. Rosedene sits on foundations of stone. I did wonder whether stones from the 12th century priory nearby (now incorporated into a farmhouse) had been used for this purpose but there is no record of that being the case. O’Connor’s design included the ‘modern’ feature of air vents low down on the walls and into the roof to reduce condensation.

The National Trust purchased Rosedene in 1997 and has faithfully restored it. We visited the cottage a week ago. There is only limited access on the first Sunday of each month between April and December (on pre-booked tours).

Unfortunately, the National Trust volunteers waiting to welcome us to Rosedene were unable to unlock the property so we never got to look inside, apart from peering through the windows.

However, you can see something more of the interior here, which also provides a potted history of Rosedene.


Almost 400 years of history in the vicinity . . .

Yesterday, Steph and I traveled some 40 miles southeast from our home in Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire, to revisit the National Trust’s Upton House and Gardens near the village of Edgehill in Warwickshire, that lies some seven miles northwest from Banbury (map).

We were last there in July 2012, combined with a trip to nearby Farnborough Hall. Take a look at a web album of photos that I posted afterwards.

Edgehill was the site of the first major battle of the First English Civil War, on Sunday 23 October 1642. Here the Royalist supporters of King Charles I clashed with Parliamentary forces under the Earl of Essex. The King had commanded the high ground and his troops marched down the Cotswolds escarpment to join battle with the enemy, arrayed below. The battle ended in stalemate.

The roar of cannons has long faded, as have the tramp of troops or galloping of horses, the clash of steel on steel, and the screams of wounded and dying men. Over the past four centuries the landscape must have changed immeasurably. Probably back in 1642 there were no fields, just open country, intermittently broken by woodland. And there certainly were no vivid blotches of bright yellow oilseed rape that are so typical of farming in the UK today.

A panorama over the site of the Battle of Edgehill, and north across Warwickshire.

We could see almost 40 miles west to the Malvern Hills, just visible (using binoculars) through the distant murk of an approaching weather front (that finally arrived with a vengeance overnight, and it has been raining heavily since). But what a magnificent view we had, almost perfect weather on May Day, even if a little chilly.

We had been intending to visit Upton just a few weeks ago, and enjoy the National Trust’s recommended ‘What a View’ Walk from Upton house, that takes in the Edgehill escarpment and the glorious view, a circular walk of just under 2½ miles that took around 1½ hours before arriving back at the car park to enjoy a welcome picnic.

We decided just to take a look at the gardens, rather than tour the house again. That would be a better option when the weather is inclement. Yesterday, after weeks of poor weather, it was just too nice to be inside.

The south front of the house overlooks the Main Lawn towards a ha-ha that disguises a steep drop to the Mirror Pool in the valley bottom.

The Main Lawn, looking south to the ha-ha, from where the garden drops steeply to the Mirror Pool. The open fields can be seen beyond the brick wall of the garden (see image immediately below).

The Mirror Pool from the ha-ha, with the Hazel Bank and Sunken Lawn on the right.

It’s remarkable how the landscape was adapted to create quite an intimate garden. We really must return again a little earlier in the year and enjoy the Spring bulbs. Most had already flowered, although there were some patches of Narcissi and beds of tulips adding a vibrancy in the early afternoon sunshine.

Looking west across the Mirror Pool to a magnificent yew behind the Kitchen Garden and the Dry Banks above.

A panorama of the Kitchen Garden and Dry Banks across the Mirror Pool, from the south. The ha-ha is at the top of the terraces, immediately below the Main Lawn.






‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here . . . ‘

Well, that was what I thought. Until a few days ago, that is.

On the outskirts of Southwell (pronounced Suthell, or more precisely /ˈsaʊθwɛl/or /ˈsʌðəl/) in Nottinghamshire there is a large redbrick building standing in about six acres of land. This is The Workhouse (or Greet House), beautifully stark in its Georgian symmetry.

Built in 1824 during the reign of King George IV, The Workhouse was ‘home’ to about 160 destitute men, women and children who were provided with ‘Indoor Relief’. The cost of providing support, under the Poor Laws, to recipients in their homes (so-called ‘Outdoor Relief’) had become less sustainable. So the Workhouse was built at Southwell to provide shelter for a limited number of paupers, many old and infirm.

Life in The Workhouse was no bed of roses, but maybe not as harsh as many others around the country, where everyone toiled in the most appalling conditions. But shelter and food was provided, and both boys and girls received a basic education, learning to read and write, and do sums.

No doubt the workhouse regime changed from time to time, as each new Master was appointed and took control of their lives. The Master and his family lived in a suite of rooms above the main entrance.

Workhouse Master Herring and his family in 1855

The Workhouse at Southwell was featured in Episode 4 of the second series of Secrets of the National Trust broadcast recently on Channel 5, and presented by Alan Titchmarsh. I have to admit it presented such a despondent scenario, a visit there didn’t seem very appealing. Consequently, Steph and I decided we wouldn’t make a special visit there, but combine it with another trip in the vicinity. And, as it happened, a diversion to Southwell last Monday added only a few miles to our return journey to visit our younger daughter and her family in Newcastle.

I mentioned my preconceptions about The Workhouse (based on the Titchmarsh program) to one of the volunteers. From what he told me, it seems that Titchmarsh wanted to present a more balanced picture of life in The Workhouse, but the series producer somewhat ‘over-egged the doom-and-gloom pudding’ story of The Workhouse. As I said there’s no denying that life inside was tough for the inmates. Life would probably have been tougher on the outside.

Now, having made a visit to The Workhouse I am so pleased that we did. It was revealing, interesting, conscience-pricking (although it’s not altogether appropriate to judge what The Workhouse stood for by today’s standards), and the National Trust volunteers (mostly in contemporary costume) brought the story of The Workhouse to life and made the visit even more enjoyable. They were very convincing, particularly the skivvy in the cellars who answered all my queries, in character.

The Workhouse consists of a three-story main building (with cellars), divided into separate sections for men and women, and able-bodied or old and infirm for each. Each group had its own exercise yard, with a privy in the corner from which ‘night soil’ was collected as manure for the garden.

Plan of The Workhouse. (5) is the National Trust entrance; (6) is the wash-house; (8) is the garden. The exercise yards can be seen either side of the main entrance to The Workhouse, with a privy in one corner of each. There are now gaps in the wall between the exercise yards to facilitate the flow of visitors. (4) is an assembly point for guided tours.

Husbands were separated from wives, and children from their mothers beyond the age of two. In the children’s dormitory, the glass in the windows (at least the lower panes) was frosted so they could not look at and see their mothers working in the yards below.

A block of outhouses to the rear of the main building contained the laundry, a bakery, and the ‘dead’ room.

Water was collected from the roof, and stored in a 160,000 gallon storage tank underneath the kitchen. Food was stored in the cellars.

Able-bodied men, who were unemployed outside The Workhouse, were considered lazy, and set to work on menial tasks such as unpicking old ropes or oakum. The old and infirm often had no work to do.

The various dormitories were on the first and top floors.

Many of the upper rooms have deteriorated and are in urgent need of conservation.

What is remarkable is that The Workhouse was still being used as an emergency shelter to house homeless families, in the so-called ‘bedsit’, as late as the 1980s.

If walls could talk, what tales they would tell us. But in the able-bodied men’s exercise yard (on the right on the panorama immediately below), and presumably out of view of the Master, at least one of the inmates did leave a legacy of their days in The Workhouse. Clearly etched on several bricks, someone has marked off the days.

It’s hard to imagine just how tough life must have been for the inmates of The Workhouse at Southwell. Surely it cannot have been worse than what they had endured, penniless and hungry, outside. With the enactment of the Poor Laws, society provided (limited) support for those who had fallen on hard times. In many ways, society has a lot to answer for today.









Daffodils and doves . . . but no fireworks

Yesterday (18 April) was, in many parts of the UK, the warmest day since the end of August 2017. After the lingering cold and grey weather we have had to endure in recent weeks, the prospect of a bright, sunny day certainly was encouraging. And, not being ones to squander an opportunity to be out and about when possible, we made the short trip to Coughton Court, a National Trust property on the outskirts of Alcester in Warwickshire, just 12 miles from home.

Coughton Court is one of our ‘local’ National Trust visits, and we’ve been there on several occasions mostly to walk through the bluebell wood and gardens. It has been in the same Throckmorton family for over 600 years, and the family still has apartments there.

We were too early to see a carpet of bluebells in the ancient wood to the east of the house. But we were not totally disappointed and some had already begun to bloom.

The Daffodil Society is holding its 2018 show at Coughton this weekend that we would have liked to attend, but have other plans made. So our visit yesterday was to view the extensive planting of daffodils in the grounds of Coughton Court. We were concerned that they would be past their best, but because of the dreary weather (and access issues at Coughton due to waterlogged car-parking) just hadn’t been able to schedule our visit before now.

Yes, some daffodil varieties were past their best, but there were still plenty more to lift our spirits.

In the orchard, there was a carpet of purple and white fritillaries under the apple trees (just about to come into flower) mixed with primroses and grape hyacinths.

Afterwards, we headed a further two miles southeast to view Kinwarton Dovecote¹ that stands alone in the middle of a field. Built in the 14th century (probably during the reign of King Edward III), the circular dovecote has more than 500 nesting niches, from which young pigeons or squabs would be taken for their meat.

It has walls that are about three feet thick, and it rises at least 20 feet to the top of the nesting ledges. A ‘potence’ or pivoted ladder (in need of repair) provided access to the highest niches. What an impressive structure that has stood proudly in the Warwickshire landscape for six centuries. What stories it could tell.

But what about the reference I made in the title of this blog post to ‘fireworks’. Well, the Throckmorton family of Coughton Court were implicated in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to overthrow recently crowned King James I (and VI of Scotland) by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. The plot, on 5 November, is celebrated each year by fireworks displays nationwide.


¹ We have visited other dovecotes owned by the National Trust and you can read about them here.

Before the ‘Beast from the East’ strikes

Friday 23 February. A bright, sunny day, and not too much of a breeze. Although the day dawned with a covering of frost everywhere, it was not as cold as I feared. Still, there was a need to wrap up warm.

It looks like things will be rather different next week when the Beast from the East hits the UK. Beast from the East? That’s what the weather system from deepest Siberia has been labeled, and due to hit the UK early in the week, with Arctic sub-zero temperatures, and possibly significant snow fall. There’s a more or less stationary high pressure system over Scandinavia to the northeast of the UK, blocking ‘warmer’ weather systems driving in from the Atlantic, and at the same time drawing in all that cold Siberian air on a strengthening easterly air flow.

So, with much more inclement weather forecast, Steph and I decided that we’d better take advantage of yesterday’s decent weather and head out for a walk, and visit yet another National Trust property: Knowles Mill, a derelict 18th century flour mill alongside Dowles Brook in the heart of the Wyre Forest on the outskirts of Bewdley, about 18 miles west from Bromsgrove.

Knowles Mill along Dowles Brook in the Wyre Forest, with the mill cottage (privately-owned and undergoing renovation) behind.

There are no National Trust signs to Knowles Mill. It’s located within the Wyre Forest National Nature Reserve, and parking (with space for up to a dozen cars) can be found at the end of the very narrow Dry Mill Lane. We arrived around 10:20, and took one of the remaining spaces. Best to get there early although by the time we departed, just after noon, many of the cars had already left. As with all my blog posts, just click on the images to open a larger version.

We decided to follow the Dowles Brook Trail (marked red on the map below), although there is a public bridleway on the other side of the brook, and a bridge over it at Knowles Mill.

This route initially follows the Wyre Forest Butterfly Trail along the bed of the disused Tenbury and Bewdley Railway that was opened in 1864, and closed in July 1961. Then there’s a steep walk down into the valley, with the path emerging behind the mill and cottage.

So what was a mill doing beside Dowles Brook, how long had it been there, and what was its history?

The millstones and gearing mechanisms inside the mill are still in quite good shape.

On the west side of the mill the skeleton of the water wheel can be seen, and beside that the drained mill pond (although with some standing water today).

I couldn’t help wondering how life at the mill must have changed once construction of the railway began in 1860. The peace and tranquility of the site must have been shattered as the gangs of navvies moved in to build the massive embankments across all the small valleys that cut through the hillside above Dowles Brook.

After visiting the mill, we headed upstream, passing Cooper’s Mill (just a cottage now) before crossing over Dowles Brook and returning to the car park along the disused railway. At the car park we enjoyed a hot cup of coffee (we’d brought a flask with us) before setting off home in time for a later than usual lunch.

The walk, just on three miles, had no challenging sections to speak of, and combined the best of both worlds: local history and the enjoyment of beautiful woodland landscapes.

Note: there are no toilets at the car park.


Mark making tools, paper, and a steady hand

Ask anyone to name a famous English composer and they’d probably mention Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) or, more probably, Sir Edward Elgar.

Elgar was born in June 1857 in a small cottage, The Firs, in the village of Lower Broadheath, a stone’s throw west of Worcester, and 20 miles southwest from our home in Bromsgrove. The cottage (formerly the Elgar Birthplace Museum) came into the care of the National Trust in 2016 following an agreement with the Elgar Foundation. Closed for a year for some refurbishment, and the addition of a tea-room at the existing Visitor Centre among other improvements, The Firs re-opened in September 2017.

As the weather forecast for Friday (yesterday) had looked promising from earlier in the week, Steph and I made plans for a day out. But where to go? Looking through the 2018 handbook I came across The Firs (which had not featured in the 2017 handbook for obvious reasons). And with the added attraction of a two-mile circular walk in Elgar country in the vicinity, this was just what the doctor ordered!

Our visit to The Firs was beyond my expectations and unbelievably moving, even bringing me to the point of tears as I watched the 15-20 minute film about Elgar in the Visitor Centre. Throughout our visit, but especially in ‘Elgar’s Study’, I really had the feeling of being in the presence of greatness, and I can’t recall ever having had that reaction before.

Elgar’s parents William and Anne had seven children, although two died young.

William was a piano tuner, and held a warrant from Queen Adelaide (wife of William IV).

Although Elgar moved away to Worcester with his family at the age of two, he retained a life-long attachment to The Firs. At the bottom of the cottage garden (see map) there is a lovely life-size sculpture of Elgar sitting on a bench (by Jemma Pearson) gazing through a gap in the hedge towards the Malvern Hills that he loved so much. It was commissioned by the Elgar Foundation in 2007 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth.

Elgar’s daughter, Carice (born in 1890) was the inspiration, in 1935, to acquire The Firs as a memorial to her father.

Entrance to the house is by timed tickets. There’s obviously not a great deal of space inside to accommodate too many visitors at a time.

Inside the entrance porch was a small room with an iron range for heating water and cooking. Today, the National Trust has decorated the room with contemporary though not original-to-the-house items, including a piano tuner’s set of instruments.

On the ground floor, the Parlour (dedicated to Carice Elgar) has a lovely piano, possibly played by Elgar.

At the top of the stairs is a room the full width of the cottage (perhaps earlier divided into two rooms) where Elgar was born. Two other rooms and this one have displays of various musical instruments, his sporting and scientific interests, and other personal belongings such as watches.

Elgar was apparently a keen cyclist, and on one wall of the Visitor Centre there’s a mural of an exuberant cycling Elgar. We were told, although this may well only be anecdotal, that Elgar once cycled from Malvern to Wolverhampton to watch his favorite football team Wolverhampton Wanderers play. A round trip of 100 miles!

Alice and Edward Elgar in 1890

Inside the Visitor Centre, an exhibition illustrates highlights from Elgar’s life and career. He married Caroline Alice Roberts in 1889. Her parents disapproved of Elgar—a ‘jobbing musician’—and did not attend their wedding in the Brompton Oratory in London. I hadn’t realized until yesterday that Elgar was a Catholic.

Alice (who died in 1920) was his inspiration, and early on in their relationship recognized his genius. And that leads to the second point I didn’t know. Elgar received no formal musical training. It wasn’t until 1899, with the first performance of the Enigma Variations, that his growing reputation as a composer was sealed.

In ‘Elgar’s study’ there are original scores of some of his most famous works, as well as the desk at which he worked.

Alice used to prepare the paper on which Elgar composed. Apparently, specially printed paper with the staves was not available, and had to be drawn by hand using the five-pointed pen you can see in a couple of the photos above.

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the free‘. Famous words by Arthur C Benson put to music in Elgar’s 1901 Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, sung here by contralto Clara Butt.

A page from the original score of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’

Who hasn’t heard Land of Hope and Glory? It’s the theme accompanying high school and university graduations around the world. Our two daughters graduated from Manila International School in the Philippines in the 1990s, and it was used then.

Another large room in the Visitor Centre, the Carice Room, is used for concerts, and where we watched the film about Elgar. There was also a lovely exhibition yesterday of watercolors by Worcestershire artist David Birtwhistle.

After a spot of lunch—we even sat outside at one of the many picnic tables—we set off on our walk, which took just over an hour. The walk begins on a public bridleway just behind The Firs, and then crosses three fields sown with oilseed rape and winter barley. By the time we reached terra firma again at Bell Lane, it felt  as though we were carrying half of Worcestershire on our muddy boots.

And at this point I must come back to Vaughan Williams for a moment, because as we were walking across the barley field, and looking back towards Worcester Cathedral to the east, a skylark rose into the air in front of us, singing lustily throughout its ascent and as it glided slowly back to earth.

What a wonderful sight and sound, reminding me instantly of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending premiered in 1920, although originally written for violin and piano in 1914.

The staff and volunteers at The Firs were outstanding, and their friendliness and readiness to engage with us added to the enjoyment of our visit. As I said at the outset, we didn’t have any particular expectations when deciding to visit Elgar’s birthplace. I came away deeply affected by what I saw, heard, and learned, and I’m sure that the emotion will stay with me for many days to come. And, coincidentally, as I am finishing writing this post, while listening to Classic FM, Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 has just been featured.