The Icknield Port Loop of the Birmingham Canal Navigations is one of those swathes of dereliction, just outside of Birmingham city centre, that shouldn’t really exist anymore. It’s a long, inaccessible ribbon of water, a better home to fauna and flora than it ever was for humans. It was part of James Brindley’s original canal, opened in 1769 to bring Wednesbury coal to Birmingham city-dwellers – this meander is typical of Brindley, matching the contours to save on locks, and connecting as many of the region’s big industries as possible. By 1827 the old canal was, in Thomas Telford’s words, a “crooked ditch” where horses struggled to stay upright on the wretched, muddy paths. Telford drove a dead straight new line through – perhaps mimicking the Roman road from which the loop takes its name – condemning this section (and others like the Soho loop, the Cape loop) to a lingering irrelevance. Industry came and went around it but now the canal, and the land around it, lie derelict.
Until now, of course. The area is to be redeveloped as a canalside quarter by (of course) urban restorationists par excellence Urban Splash; 1,150 homes are expected to be built, and planning permission for the first 207 has just been granted. The Birmingham Post described them as “recreating unpopular back-to-backs housing” – and therein lies the rub.
The full plans are available here, and as you’ll be able to see, they’re a far cry from the acres of Victorian back-to-backs that once sprawled across Birmingham. These will be fairly spacious, with green spaces in between the houses, several points of pedestrian access and all mod cons (inside toilets, that sort of thing). Cllr Henley was not keen:
We had a discussion – we said we did not want back-to-back or courtyard housing. This type of housing is not popular in the UK.
Nobody does it in Britain. We’ve knocked down millions of these houses, it’s absurd to build them.
He’s referring to exactly those back-to-backs which once multiplied across the city to house Birmingham’s legions of workers. Birmingham is a city very aware of its place in the remaking of urban fabric. I wonder whether this is an appeal to Birmingham’s housing heritage on the part of the architects; I’ve no doubt that this is an appeal to the city’s history of clearance on the part of the councillor.
From 1875, Birmingham was one of the boldest proponents of slum clearance in the country. Uncle Joe Chamberlain’s flagship programme was the £1.5m scheme that drove (eventually) the grand, Parisian-style Corporation Street through what was contentiously branded an “unhealthy area.” The courts and alleys of Birmingham were portrayed as beyond the pale – unhealthy, ill-ventilated, dimly-lit hindrances to progress. The fad took and over the next decades, back-to-backs and ‘slums’ were bulldozed, their occupants rehoused in the sprawling, geometric interwar estates and the high-rises and council homes of the post-war period. By the 1960s, of course – as the photography of Janet Mendelsohn and Nick Hedges showed – slums remained; but even they succumbed to the modernising axe that completely redrew the heart of Birmingham then.
Back-to-backs have a stronger cultural resonance in Birmingham than almost anywhere (perhaps Leeds is the exception, where they continued to be built even after bye-laws banned them; many are still there). This is reinforced by the National Trust’s appropriation of some of the few remaining back-to-backs on Hurst Street. These are well worth a visit, and you can get some idea of the winding, garret-like staircases and cramped accommodation, although being National Trust this is a cleanly view – there’s no filth on the ground, and no amount of visiting can replicate life in squalor in one of these houses. But the very presence of these as a heritage attraction has contributed to a romantic view of back-to-back life and its centrality in Birmingham life, and here the architects may have drawn inspiration. The major complaint of the rehomed in the slum clearances was loss of community – a shared yard meant shared experiences of everything in life, and that simply could not be replicated in a high-rise or a semi. Perhaps, the Icknield development aims to replicate that sense of togetherness – certainly Cllr Williams thinks so:
“Children love to play together. It’s a good idea to have a secure area where children can play and be looked after. I think it’s a plus.”
Children playing in the yard; safety and security; it’s all a wonderful attempt to recapture a rosy past when times were tough, but at least we stuck together. This is nostalgia. Life in such housing was not only hard, it was backbreaking, gendered – the brew’us was the women’s domain, and the women were expected to work at it – and racialised – the Irish frequently got the worst in the 19th century, other immigrants in the 20th. The shared experience wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be either: I spoke just this week to someone who’d grown up in a house like this and she remembers her mother closing the front door in the summer so that the neighbours didn’t have to see that they only had bread and dripping for tea. Those who lived in these houses are to be praised and celebrated; but they had to work hard and sweat because of where they lived – the architecture itself is not necessarily something to be honoured.
Perhaps the Conservative councillor Gareth Moore hit on something when he told the planning committee:
It should be sent back to the drawing board and they should actually build some decent housing for decent people to live in.
What is a decent person? What standards are we using to judge who is decent enough to live in a decent house? This takes us to the heart of the issue of Victorian working-class housing. Those living in back-to-back homes in Victorian Birmingham were not praised for their community spirit; politicians didn’t nod cheerfully when rosy-cheeked young wags threw an apple at their hat from the safety of their court, or when matriarchs guarding the entrance told them where they could stick their inspection. If you lived in these houses, you were thought poor, maybe indigent, or criminal, or at the very least an economic problem to be dealt with. Chamberlain presented a plan to knock down an “unhealthy area”; but at the root was a need to get the poor out of the city centre to make way for capital.
Thus it’s a slippery slope for both sides at Icknield Port. Designing a home on the basis of a past that is mis-remembered, sometimes wilfully, is a bad idea. People remember the courts and alleys, at least in their understanding of the town’s history, and they remember them with the same confusion, tweaked and manipulated by sweetened versions of the past that the heritage industry throws up. They can forget the tragedy of working-class housing, the way that millions of people were thrown by economic forces into unfit, squalid homes where all that was going for them was that the neighbours could see in your front door. But those condemning new homes on the same front face the same risk, appropriating an important piece of communal history and stripping the genuine and important memories from it. My sympathy is with neither side here. History is always written from one perspective or the other, and every historian chooses the sources they use, and the sources they don’t, to make their point. But it is also the role of the historian to ensure that in doing that they do not misrepresent or silence important voices; and to hold others in power, attempting to use history to make their point, to the same standards.