Saturday, 16 October 2010

Waddesdon Manor versus the Back to Backs. "It's the rich what gets the pleasure, and the poor what gets the blame"

Washing, Bed bugs, the cheese Queen Victoria didn't eat, and getting what you deserve.

This blog is spattered with visits to a variety of National Trust properties. This is because if you're a member they offer interesting places to visit at no cost, except for your cup of tea and slice of cake!

However, I occasional baulk at the unbridled opulence of some places given the times they were built and how their owners accrued their wealth. Let's be honest and not flowery; it makes me a tad sick.

DH is a volunteer tour guide at the Back to Backs in Birmingham. Life was very different for the working classes. Here's some snippets to compare and contrast tiny bits of life for fun. The periods of history don't coincide exactly of course, but it gives a very brief flavour of those that had and those that didn't.

Waddesdon Manor versus the Back to Backs.

It's called a manor, but isn't. It's more like a French chateau. This pile of magnificence was one of 54 houses the Rothchilds owned throughout the world. It was for weekend parties throughout the summer, and was shut up for the rest of the time. It's purpose was to enable it's rather strange owner Baron Ferdinand de Rothchild, to play about and show off to his friends.  He collected a bit too....notably Sevres porcelain and Dutch old masters. He lived with his sister, and much was made of her philanthropy...though to be honest a little bit of support of the local school doesn't count for much when you're that wealthy. Buy a hospital. Buy 6 schools. Money is wasted on the rich!

The houses

View of the house from the end of the drive

Fabulous roof line.

These are the stables. They employed 16 people to look after the horses. The back to backs in the 1870's in Birmingham housed up to 10 people in 2 bedrooms. On the whole, better to be a horse.

The back to backs.  Imagine a brick wall with a house on either side of it; each house has only 1 door on the wall opposite that central wall. They were built largely by speculative builders for rent to accomodate the massive explosion of people bought into the city during the industrial revolution. The courts shown below are for the better off working class family.
The photo on the right is the courtyard, shared by all the properties in this block. The small building on the right were toilets. There were 11 houses sharing these facilities..approximately 60 people. There were 3 toilets and 2 washouses. These back to backs were occupied by the skilled and better off worker.

The National Trust bought the row and restored it. It now includes a sweet shop where you can buy your old favourites. Each back to back is done up in differently; the earliest being 1840's and the latest 1970 - a tailors shop - when it finally fell into disuse.

Low wages and the scramble for jobs meant that people needed to live near to where work was available. Time taken walking to and from work would extend an already long day beyond endurance.
Consequently available housing became scarce and therefore expensive, resulting in extremely overcrowded conditions

Slums of London, Engraving by Gustave Dore, 1850

Looking after each other.


The breakfast room chandelier at Waddesdon.

The table is laid with Sevres porcelain. The food was the best and most sumptuous available. Queen Victoria eat here and took 3 copies of the menu away with her to give to her chef, in the hope that he would learn how to do the dishes.

 A close up of the Sevres porcelain on the table above. There were a number of pieces on display. I was amused to see one of them filled with Coconut Mushrooms, a cheap child's sweet, amusingly,  available in the Back to Back's shop!

 This George 111 Silver is still being collected by the family today. The table is a half circle with the centre removed and everyone sat around the outside. It was mostly self service, so the silver dishes are repeated around the table, and laid exactly symmetrically, enabling everyone to reach everything on offer.

I'd often wondered why wine glasses of this period were so small. If you look, you can see there aren't any glasses on the table. If you wanted a drink therefore, you had to summon a footman/waiter who stood behind you. He bought your glass of grog on a tray, and you downed it in one, returning it to the tray afterwards. The glass size therefore reflects the need to be only 1 mouthful in size.
In the back to backs life was different. In the 1840's it was hard to make ends meet if you were working class, especially if you had a large family. If poorly paid you would get about £1 for a 50 hour week, if better skilled perhaps as much as £3 to £4. Your diet was bread, potatoes and cheese. It was monotonous and poor quality. The higher paid worker might be able to afford a bit of meat and had more choice.

Red lead was used to colour cheese, flour was bleached with allum (alluminium sulphate) Copper sulphate was used to colour pickles; there was chocolate if you could afford it, however, one chap was caught making chocolate using molten candlewax and brown paint. Yum.


This photo looks like a small clock. It isn''s the largest piece of furniture of it's kind in the world, probably French, and is a writing dest with storage and 2 clocks. The top clock can be seen from the other end of the room, and the small one in the middle is for when you're sitting at the desk and can't see the big one.


 Some textiles collected by Rothchild's sister. She used to worry about never having enough linen so bought far more than she needed. I probably would too, if I had the means! (But I'd still fund a school or two)

I understand that this desk is the most expensive piece in the house, being a writing desk belonging to Louise (xvi??) of France. I believe it was used by Marie Antoinette.

There are so many rooms that I lost count. This one seems to have a lot of instruments so it was probably the mid morning snack cum music room.

This is the bottom part of the bedroom (....the bed and other half of the room is below, under Beds.)

The family still collect art and add it to the house. These chairs being a prime example.

The Baron is in that little picture on the stand, and the Boy in Pink is Reynolds I think?

This is a boudoir next to a bedroom. Look at all the furniture! Mind you, I quite liked the chandelier- it was almost modern and had a hint of Ikea about it.

Winston Churchill used to ask for this room whenever he visited. Probably because it's the only one with a balcony and he could nip out for a quick smoke.

The light levels are very low so my photos are a bit blurry. Just dripping with fabulous paintings by the likes of Reynolds, Sevres porcelaine, and expensive French carpets.


This beautiful bed was part of a suite of 3 rooms that the most favoured guests slept in...including Royal visitors.They had their own dressing room/bathrooms/drawing rooms/boudoir etc.

In the back to backs, the beds were probably sacking, horse hair. Bed bugs were common along with cockroaches and fleas. It was common to have 4 people to one bed.

At the same time as folk were using this bed on the left at Waddeston, the Birmingham clan were having it hard. At the time of the 1871 census there were 10 people in the house, Mum and Dad shared a room with their youngest son and daughter; 4 older boys slept in one bed and shared the room with 2 lodgers.

The pictue on the right shows beds from the workhouse I posted about recently. They are iron bedsteds with straw mattresses. Very similar I would think. Btw, I sat on them and they are as hard as rock.


The back to backs had no bathrooms and most didn't bath very often anyway. The washouse (see above) was outside near the loos but was for laundry mostly.

 In an article published on 24th September 1849 an investigative journalist from London described a Street with a "tidal ditch running through it, into which drains and sewers emptied. The ditch contained the only water the people in the street had to drink, and it was ‘the colour of strong green tea’, in fact it was ‘more like watery mud than muddy water’"

Sanitation was by cesspit where it existed, and it was common for urine to leak out and into the surrounding soil, into the cellars where people lived, and even into the wells where people drew their drinking water from. This led to a number of outbreaks of cholera....31,000 people died in one outbreak in 1832.

Meanwhile, at Waddesdon, this photo is a bathroom in a suite which comprises of dressing room, bathroom and bedroom.

 This is the dressing room part of a suite. Why you may ask is there a bed here? Well, it wasn't for the servant, but for the male part of a couple visiting in case he should come to bed and find his wife asleep or otherwise entertained. Affairs were common for both male and females. Who'd have thought.
Well, the Back to Backs didn't have gardens of course, just a courtyard to hang the washing in and play if you were a child. Because the houses were so small and the families so large, most of the time was spent on the streets. The streets were meeting places, a place where children played, and where you stayed until you needed to eat or go to bed.

Waddesdon's gardens today are beautiful and I believe reflect how they appeared at the time. The bottom photo is of the aviary where a large number of exotic birds were kept to entertain the guests.

I just loved the way this ivy has been painstakingly trained up the wall. There is a single wire underneath onto which the ivy is tied, but it must require endless trimming.


‘the poor were improvident, they wasted any money they had on drink and gambling’;
‘God had put people in their place in life and this must not be interfered with because the life after death was more important’

As far as the later comment is concerned, this is clearly demonstrated in a hymn published in 1848 by Cecil Frances Alexander:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high and lowly,
And order’d their estate


  1. a fasinating account Annabel. I'm glad that generally the isn't such vast gaps between in our times. But then maybe there is and I just don't get to see it.

    just a little note to add... I'm changing my blog and webpage to if you'd like to update your link.

    looking forward to reading more
    Helen S

  2. I always hated that verse (having grown up poor). A fascinating post Annabel. There are still back-to-backs in Leeds though they have modern plumbing these days. And the gap is definitely still there - bankers' bonuses vs people in danger of losing benefits they need to live? Best not get on my hobby horse!

  3. Yes, a fascinating post Annabel, it must have taken you ages to compile and I've learnt from it too. So much to marvel at including the ivy trained round that wall. I never knew that glasses were not put on the table.

  4. What a wonderful and interesting blog. Thankyou for collecting and logging this for us.....absolutely fascinating!

  5. Sorry not to have got back to you all earlier. Thank you for your kind comments.

    Helen Suzanne, Thanks for the info on the new blog. I've been over and left a comment. I expect we'll all be finding our way in the next few days!
    Sandra: I know! There are so many comparisons you could make today..including the bed bugs unfortunately (I don't have them I hasten to add, but they're quite widespread apparently)

    Thank you Joan and Julie: Yes it did take a couple of days to write simply because I'd forgotten where my photos and stuff were and couldn't find the quotes I wanted. Glad it was interesting...I worry about being boring!