Back-to-back houses were the subject of controversy throughout the Victorian period as they were considered to be among the worst type of housing. They were associated with overcrowded slum conditions, poor sanitary provision and no through ventilation, which was thought to be the cause of disease.
From the 1890s, back-to-backs were being built in three urban layouts, all with a maximum street length of 120 yards. The first type was the street-lined house built in blocks of eight, with closet yards between each block and a minimum street width of forty-two feet. The second type featured houses built in blocks, but with each having its own exclusive outdoor space, and a minimum street width of thirty-six feet. The third, and most common type, was the house built in a continuous row, with an outdoor space of at least fifteen feet, and a minimum street width of thirty-six feet (Housing, Town planning etc Bill 1909. Statement of the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Citizens of Leeds, 2-3 cited Daunton 1983, 27).
A local act of 1893 brought about improvements to sanitary facilities, and back-to-back houses were being built in a variety of sizes and designs (Burnett 1986, 173). The smallest type was the three room house which had a living-kitchen on the ground floor, and a bedroom on each of the first and attic floors, plus a single basement room. The most common type was the four room house which had a living-kitchen and scullery on the ground floor, two bedrooms on the first floor, and a third bedroom in the attic. The basement contained the coal cellar and wash-kitchen with the newest, and most ‘superior’ type including an outside toilet, usually shared between two houses although sometimes they had one each. The improvements to the urban layout and the plan form and facilities in the houses themselves, had combined to provide adequate ventilation and sanitary provision – the back-to-backs had overcome two of the longest-standing criticisms (Daunton 1983, 26-27).
Although the by-laws already controlled space, density and materials, the Housing and Town Planning Act 1909 was to incorporate them, and significantly, the building of back-to-backs was prohibited (Beresford 1971, 116; Harper, xxvii-xxviii). The Corporation of Leeds fought the case to keep them, arguing that back-to-backs had been improved considerably and that the criticisms of the early back-to-backs were not relevant to those now being built (Daunton 193, 26-27). The Leeds Master Builders Association also objected on the grounds that rents would be increased beyond the means of working-class people (Beresford 1971, 116). The Act however came into force, although a loophole meant that building could continue for those developments that had been approved before May 1909. Building in Leeds had traditionally been slow, and with a six year break in building after the first world war, the last street was not completed until 1937 (Beresford 1971, 119).
These final back-to-backs – Moderns – incorporated further improvements to the design. The streets had increased to forty-two feet wide in addition to the requirement for forecourts, and two notable typologies emerged – the smaller two storey ‘cottage’ style back-to-back with a living room and kitchen on the ground floor and one bedroom and bathroom to the first floor; and a cleverly devised split level house with a basement, living room and kitchen to the ground floor, bedroom and bathroom at first floor and two further bedrooms in the attic (Muthesius 1982, 117). With the inclusion of an indoor toilet, the houses had at last overcome the final criticism, to become self-contained.
The back-to-backs in Harehills
In the Harehills Triangle, the following house types are found:
Figure 1 The types of back-to-back houses in the Harehills Triangle area (Source: Dolman 2007; Harrison 2015)
There are around 100 variations in architectural detailing, a small sample of which are shown in the photographs below.
Figure 2 The only Type 1 house in the Harehills Triangle
Figure 3 Street-lined Type 2 houses
Figure 4 Garden fronted Type 2 houses
Figure 5 Type 3 houses (shared WC accessed from outside)
Figure 6 Type 3 houses (own WC accessed from outside)
Figure 7 Pseudo Type 3 houses
Figure 8 Split level ‘Moderns’
The full history of back-to-back housing in Leeds from 1787-1937, and an Historic Area Assessment of the Harehills Triangle can be accessed at the University of York library. See below for details.
Beresford, M. (1971). The back-to-back house in Leeds, 1787-1937. In S. D. Chapman ed. The history of working-class housing: a symposium. Newton Abbot: David and Charles. 93-132.
Burnett, J. (1986). A social history of housing, 1815-1985. London; New York: Methuen.
Daunton, M. (1983). House and home in the Victorian city: working class housing, 1850-1914. London; Baltimore, Md., USA: E. Arnold.
Dolman, M. (2007). How to identify types of back-to-back housing in Leeds.
Harper, R. (1985). Victorian building regulations. Summary tables of the principal English building Acts and Model By-laws 1840-1914. London: Mansell Publishing Limited.
Harrison, J. (2015). Heritage at risk: Victorian back-to-back houses in 21st century Leeds. MA dissertation. University of York.
Housing, Town planning etc Bill 1909. Statement of the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Citizens of Leeds.
Muthesius, S. (1982). The English terraced house. New Haven: Yale University Press.