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Working with Photographs

The yard in a block of “Back-to-Back” houses in Birmingham, 1905. Two women and a child.

The caption reads, “Adam Street Slum Clearance.”

But “slum” is a pejorative term. And who decides what a “slum” is?

Photographs are often used by historians as primary evidence. We believe it is important to invite students to work with and interpret primary and not just secondary evidence.

Partly because it develops skills of research and interpretation.


But also: one of the problems for history teaching that focuses on ordinary people’s lives, is the paucity of the historical record.

The photographic evidence is limited; and needs to be supplemented by other primary sources, where this exists. It is through piecing together evidence from primary sources, that we can recover stories that are in danger of being lost altogether.

On a project for Midland Actors Theatre, called “One Area Through Time,” Professor Carl Chinn shared photos like this one with groups of students. He invited them to look for clues into the lives of the people in the photo.

The clothes they are wearing. The clean aprons. The net curtains in the windows. All signs of taking pride, and keeping things clean – even in the midst of poverty… even in a so-called “slum”

The last of Birmingham’s Back-to-Back houses were finally cleared in the 1970s. They were home for people who moved to Birmingham for work – both internal migrants, many of whom moved here from the countryside; as well as people from abroad. 

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The Back-to-Backs are part of our collective story, as a city of migrants. In tracing the story of life in the Back-to-Backs, one of the best sources are the memoirs written by Kathleen Dayus, who was born in 1903, and grew up in the Jewellery Quarter. Here is an extract from her book, Her People, describing her own back yard:


"There were five houses or hovels with five more back-to-backs to each terrace. They were all built the same; one large living room, one bedroom, and an attic. … At the end of the yard stood three ashcans and five lavatories, or closets as we called them. … Next to the closets were two wash-houses where every washday everybody did their weekly wash. … Finally there was a gas lamp in the centre of the yard and also a tap where everybody got their weather for all household uses."

We invited students at George Dixon Academy to suggest what the women in the Adam Street photograph would say, if they were asked. Here are some of their suggestions:


"This is our home. We don’t want to leave."


"We don’t know what will happen to us. But we keep our curtains clean."


"Life is hard for us. We do what we can."


"Do you even know who we are?"


"Don’t forget us."

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