Back to Basics

Following the tragic deaths of a father and five children unable to escape from a house fire in Birmingham the News Chronicle (13/8/54) reported that experiments will begin to fit asbestos hatches in the attics of the 11,000 Council-owned back-to-back houses and that the Council hopes that private landlords will fit them in the city’s 26,000 “back-to-backs.”

Disraeli is supposed to have said that in England there are two completely distinct nations, the one knowing nothing about the other; and another “wag” put it rather better by saying: “One half of the world doesn’t know how the other half lives and if they do, don’t care.” Many Provincial visitors see London, and many Londoners see Margate and Brighton, and even see France, but the relative number of people who see round English industrial towns are few. When talking about travel who would ever think of saying: “I have explored Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley, Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield, and Bradford?”

First of all it would be best to explain what back-to-back houses really are, as many Londoners and small town inhabitants may never have seen one. They do not exist in London now, and never in country districts.

Following the industrial revolution of the last century, the need for cheap compact houses around big industry was solved by building small four-roomed dwellings, two rooms up and two down, with a similar structure attached to its rear, but its front door facing the opposite direction. There is no back exit, no front or back yard or garden. Many of these back-to-backs have no sanitary arrangements (some no water), and at the end of each street there are two or four toilets, to be used by the whole street community. On a nice warm Sunday morning a small queue will be seen sitting on the curb, in their shirt sleeves, awaiting their turn.

Standing on a hill outside Leeds you can see row after row of such houses, and the News Chronicle states that there are 26,000 in Birmingham alone. It would be interesting to find out numbers for many other English industrial towns.

Here again, to quote from the News Chronicle (13/8/54):

“The hatches will probably be made from asbestos sheeting, which could easily be broken in an emergency. They will cost £2. . . The only real solution is the demolition of all back-to-back houses, but that is impossible in the near future because of the housing situation.”

Does this need any further comment, a country—the home of the Mother of Parliaments, and one of the “forward peoples,” as distinct from the so-called “backward peoples,” a county that is at present spending £2,500 million on rearmament, is unable to cure the back-to-back houses question?

The real tragedy is Capitalism—the cause of slum houses and all the rest of our troubles.


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