Court 15, which stands at the corner of Inge Street and Hurst Street, has been restored and the houses have been reconstructed to illustrate the homes and lives of four different families who lived in four different time periods.
The 1840s: the Levys
The first house was the home of Lawrence and Priscilla Levy and their four children Joseph, Adelaide, Morris and Emanuel, who lived there in the 1840’s. Lawrence was a watchmaker and was assisted with his work by his two eldest sons.
I learned some interesting things about this time period from our tour of this old house. The kitchen was tiny and dark. As the Levy’s were a Jewish family, meat was kept and prepared separately to vegetables. The eggs were kept in a wire basket hung from the ceiling [which was low]. This was to keep them away from rats. Another interesting discussion point was the wooden canopy over the bed, the primary function of which was to keep bugs and insects from falling onto people while they slept.
Although Court 15 was never a predominantly Jewish court, there were always Jewish families living there. In the early 19th century, the majority of the Jewish population of Birmingham lived in the streets around Hurst Street and Inge Street. A synagogue was build in Hurst Street in 1791 and another in 1920. There was also a Jewish shower bath at the Ladywell Baths nearby and a Hebrew School, which opened in Lower Hurst Street in 1843.
The 1870s: The Oldfields
Herbert and Ann Oldfield moved into Court 15 during the 1960s. They had ten children (five boys and five girls) although only one was born in the court. It seems that only one child died in infancy which was rather amazing given the high death rate among children in Birmingham at that time.
Herbert Oldfield was a glassworker who specialised in the making the glass eyes for dolls and stuffed animals. He may also have supplied glass eyes for people who had lost their real eye in an accident.
Some interesting quotes from the National Trust Back-to-Backs guide book from this era are as follows:
“The bedrooms are always less clean even than the living-rooms. In some cases the sheets are nearly black, the practice being not to wash the children before they go to bed. There are generally two single or one double-bed in each room and very little else… In one room she [the mother] and her husband slept with the baby in the basket-cradle beside them. In the attic one single bed held two girls and another three boys.”
The children slept top to toe.
The biggest shock for me about this era was when the guide opened the drawer in the parents bedroom and there was the baby. This was a real trend and a baby was frequently put to sleep in a drawer. All was well unless someone accidentally closed the drawer while the baby was in it. I do wonder sometimes whether, in those days of squalor, over-crowding and poverty, whether the mothers really minded when the babies died.