We’ve been in our new office for just over a year now, located in the Rifle Maker Building in Water Street, in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter. History in this part of the city is at your fingertips and it’s hard to not notice something new every day. In our line of business, it’s interesting to find out how places change and evolve over time, as development happens and landscapes inevitably change. It got us thinking about how Water Street has changed over the years, and the many people who once lived and worked here.
Water Street is still continuing to change to this day with new developments popping up all the time, but it also has a colourful history. If you transport yourself back to 1861, this street was lined with courtyards of back-to-back housing, not really surprising given that Birmingham once had thousands of them.
Back-to-backs were popular because they were considered a cheap, economical and efficient way of building, to achieve the highest density per acre, but this often meant that the houses were ‘thrown’ up and had very poor sanitation and living conditions. In the 1850s, over 60% of Birmingham inhabitants lived in back-to-backs scattered throughout the city centre, stretching from Aston in the north, to Small Heath in the south. You get a feel for how confined residents must have felt in an over-crowded and quickly-developing Birmingham.
The map below from 1887 shows that No 6 and No 7 courts were once situated where our office is today. 15 people lived in Court 7 in five tiny houses, with a shared courtyard space, also sharing toilet and washing facilities. Occupations of residents ranged from a button maker, brass founder, jeweller, weighing-machine maker, cooper, carpenter and a gun maker, all living in Water Street between 1861-1901. Pretty different from the street today.
Thousands of migrants came to Birmingham, and looking through census data, Water Street was no exception. This street was home to some of the poorest migrants in the city, namely Irish migrants, who came to the city in search of a new life. Court No 2, just a stone’s throw from our office, once located by Peel and Stone, was home to around 40% of Irish-born residents in 1861, living in squalid conditions and looking for the prospect of work and a new life. Birmingham offered this to so many migrants across the city, not just in Water Street, and was very much a city built on migration.
Many back-to-backs were cleared in the early 20th century as part of Chamberlain’s slum clearance in 1875, known as the Birmingham Improvement Act. In fact, the only remaining back-to-backs in the city are those preserved as a museum on Hurst Street. This clearance eventually made way for the construction of our office building.
It’s hard to imagine this unfamiliar landscape in today’s Birmingham, and we’re sure that the city will continue to change and develop in years to come. And we look forward to watching Water Street’s character evolve once more.
Look out for more blogs coming soon!
Written by Anne-Marie Hayes