Woman 'humbled' to learn how many of her ancestors endured Birmingham's back-to-back housing

ITV Central's Rosie Dowsing joins former back-to-back resident Jan Daniells revisiting her heritage in Birmingham's notorious housing of the past.

A woman from Shropshire who grew up in Birmingham's back-to-back housing as a child, says she was shocked' and 'humbled' to learn that many generations of her family also endured hardships there.

Jan Daniells lived in back-to-backs in Berners Street between 1961 and 1967 as a family of six people in a two bedroom house.

Now she has learned generations of her family lived in similar housing in Birmingham, but many in even more destitute circumstances.

New historical records from the 1921 census have been released and thousands of stories about the ordinary lives of Birmingham's working class have been made available for people to explore for free by genealogy company FindMyPast, in collaboration with the National Trust.

The National Trust have long preserved the last remaining back-to-back houses on Hurst and Inge Street, in Birmingham, as a heritage site, but the release of the 1921 census now provides more details about those who lived there in the inter-war years.

The 1921 census holds 38 million returns from households across the UK, many of which struggled during the post-war years. Credit: FindMyPast

Unsanitary and cramped back-to-back housing existed in Birmingham until the early 1970s.

It involved rows of housing built on the backs of each other, where different households would share a toilet, a courtyard, and a 'brewhouse' laundry room.

Jan says uncovering her family history of hardship was both important and humbling, as generations of her father's side, and some on her mother's side, experienced similar living conditions to her early childhood.

She said: "It's quite sobering to realise what my ancestors endured, but I imagine for them it felt normal.

"When you realise how many people were living in the same household, in one or two rooms, it is quite humbling.

"It makes you think it is their hard graft, their endurance, that has helped us get to where we are as future generations."

The preserved Birmingham back-to-backs operated by the National Trust. Credit: ITV Central

Jan says some of her most vivid memories are the icicles that would form on the windows, the huge amount of spiders, and the struggles her mum had when trying to buy food or top up the meter.

She said: "I've never lost that sense of where I am from. Although I don't sound brummie, I am proud to say I am a brummie.

"To know this back-to-back site is being kept alive is important, because it represents a really important phase in people's lives."

The research by FindMyPast and the National Trust uncovered details about what life would have been like for back-to-back residents in the aftermath of the First World War – including struggling creatives, cramped and squalid living conditions, and veterans struggling with the terrible legacy of combat.

Harry Dowell was one of just two 'theatrical comedians' living in Birmingham in 1921, and he resided at 50 Inge Street just a few streets from the hippodrome.

He used the stage name Harry Shiels and it's thought he went onto appear in more than 3,000 shows in Birmingham and around the country.

Experts believe that Harry went on to have a successful career with the stage name Harry Shiels. Credit: Crown Copyright Images reproduced by The National Archives

The project also discovered from the census that a few houses along, at 40 Inge Street, five families were crammed into one three-room house, enduring terrible conditions around full-time work at the nearby motor works, metal works and hospital.

Meanwhile, at 81 Hurst Street lived 39-year-old veteran Charles Hoare barely surviving in back-to-backs on an army pension with his parents. He also died there, aged just 42.

1921 records show veteran Charles Hoare lived in back-to-back housing with his parents. Credit: Crown Copyright Images reproduced by The National Archives,

Maddy Gilbert from FindMyPast said: "The thing about the 1921 census is that includes 38 million household returns for people across the UK, and in Birmingham you can discover the ordinary working lives and experiences of your ancestors.

"It's really exciting because it's very rare new light can be shed on places like the back-to-backs because so much is known about them, but because this is a new publication and new records, we've been able to find these stories."

While back-to-backs are synonymous with hardship, they housed the lives of the working class in times gone by, who contributed to what Birmingham is today.

The new information has been made freely available for people to trace their own history.