At home with the little people

13th August 2004 at 01:00
The National Trust's latest attraction gives visitors a unique glimpse of urban social history, reports Matthew Brown

Jenny Tasker is standing in a low, dark bedroom, leaning against an old iron bedstead. Outside, through the small sash window behind her, is a cobblestone yard where children are playing hopscotch and hula-hoop, ducking beneath the vests and nightshirts pegged to clothes lines criss-crossing the court.

"This room might look quite big," Jenny is saying. "But remember, you'd have mum and dad at one end of the bed and at least two children at the other. They had bugs too," she goes on. "When it got really bad they'd stoke the fire up and the heat would drive the bugs through the wall to the next door house. Of course, the neighbours would just do the same, and drive them back."

In two weeks, Jenny, 16, will get the results of the 10 GCSEs she took at King Edward VI grammar school for girls in Birmingham last term, but she's here as a newly trained, NVQ-certified, National Trust tour guide.

"Here" is the latest National Trust property to open to the public, although it's hardly the kind of stately home or country garden you would usually associate with Europe's largest conservation charity. Court 15 is a small clutch of 19th-century back-to-back houses tucked into the corner of Inge Street and Hurst Street, bang in the centre of inner-city Birmingham.

There are 11 houses in all, small, brick-fronted, one-room deep, terraced dwellings, clustered around an enclosed back yard complete with standpipe, communal wash room and outdoor privies. Built between 1802 and 1831, they are typical of the kind of poor quality, working-class housing that shot up in Britain's rapidly-expanding northern and Midlands cities throughout the industrial revolution.

Birmingham - once called "the city of 1,000 trades" - had more than 40,000 back-to-backs by the time of the First World War, housing more than 200,000 people. By the 1960s, almost all had been swept away, replaced by office blocks, roads and high-rise. But somehow Court 15 clung on, and in 1988 the buildings were Grade II listed, the last surviving back-to-backs in the city. Now, in a pound;1.89 million project, they have been restored by Birmingham Conservation Trust and refitted to reflect the lives of families who lived there in the 1840s, 1870s, 1930s and 1970s. Some of the contents have been donated by local people.

As a living monument to industrial working-class life, the Back-to-Backs venture is a departure for the National Trust, as Emma Hawthorne, its community, learning and volunteer manager for the West Midlands, explains.

"It is slightly different for us," she says. "But there's been a recent recognition of the importance of industrial history. We've tried to collect a more diverse range of buildings to reflect more diverse experiences."

Local support for the project was reflected in the "overwhelming" response to the trust's call for volunteers to the tour guide training programme, run by South Birmingham College and funded by the Birmingham and Solihull Learning and Skills Council. The initial open days attracted 100 people, and two, 30-hour, 10-week courses started in March, leading to NVQ level two qualifications from the Open College Network for the 48 who eventually completed the programme.

"We were overwhelmed," says Ms Hawthorne. "It proved the massive groundswell of local feeling for the site." Almost a third of the volunteers had lived in back-to-backs themselves, although there was a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Jenny Tasker, the youngest, was so keen she fitted the course in around her GCSEs, attending the college one evening a week.

As well as learning about tourism and tour guide skills, the students met former residents of the properties and had talks on local history. "I wasn't even sure what back-to-backs were when I applied to do this," says Jenny. "I can now tell you almost all there is to know about these four houses and the people who lived in them."

Ms Hawthorne says: "More people lived in back-to-backs than ever lived in stately homes. People feel that a little bit of their history has survived.

It's the roots of a city that's being modernised and regenerated all around them."

So popular are the courses that two more are to start in September. Jenny was attracted because of her interest in history, which she wants to study at university, and hopes tour guiding will help her stand out from other candidates. Like all the volunteers, though, she's picked up a huge range of non-academic, but highly transferable skills in customer service, health and safety, dealing with the public and handling special needs, to say nothing of the local knowledge she's gained.

"Social history is important because everyone can relate to it," she says.

"Everything that happens in history is about social history; all big events are about little people too."

It's a sentiment that ties neatly with the trust's new thinking. "With this project we're trying to involve the public rather than make them passive visitors," says Ms Hawthorne. "We wanted to work with people here, not deliver someone else's version of their history.

"The trust's mission is 'forever for everyone'," she says. "We've always been good at the 'forever' bit, but it's time to look at the 'for everyone'

side. That's what this place is about."

The Back-to-Backs opened to the public on July 23 (Infoline: 0121 666 7671). For more information about the National Trust's community, learning and volunteering department, tel: 0870 609 5383, or email: The National Trust teachers' pack for key stage 2 and 3 is available for pound;6 from 01909 511066.

Back-to-back basics

After October's half-term break, the Back-to-Backs will be open exclusively to schools every Tuesday to Friday morning during term time. The education programme will be run by a new community and learning officer and teachers will be able to run lessons in an education space, using old maps of Birmingham and objects from the houses.

"The potential for learning is amazing," says Emma Hawthorne. "It's not just history - we can do drama projects about the families, and art around the theme of migration. It's one of the only places where children can come to look at the social history of their city."

Local primary schools Chad Vale and St George's have already been involved, working with Creative Partnerships, the arts in education initiative, to help "the development and interpretation of the site".

Year 5 children from Chad Vale devised games for the yard. They interviewed ex-residents about their childhood toys, researched old games and produced an instruction booklet for other schools to use when they visit. "Local history inspires them," says their teacher, Vickie Crombie. "They can see what it has to do with their lives." The project is also a great learning tool, she says, teaching problem solving and literacy skills, use of language and persuasive writing.

Children from St George's have been looking at the census for 1870 and working with a drama adviser to produce a play about life in Court 15 that they'll perform for visiting groups.

"The children say what we should do and how to put it on," says Ms Hawthorne. "The potential for learning here is huge."

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