Mark’s History: How many back to backs survive today?

back to backs bramley
Photo: Mark Stevenson

The first mention of back-to-back houses was in Bermondsey in 1706, writes Mark Stevenson.

In 1787 we first hear mention of them being built in Leeds at Union Street and Ebenezer Street near the market in town, these were probably built in what was called the Court System.

back to back housing bramley
Back to back housing in Bramley. Photo: Mark Stevenson

Research by Joanne Harrison (The Origin, Development and Decline of Back-to-Back Houses in Leeds, 1787–1937) says:

“Houses were built in a courtyard arrangement, the houses to the front of a back-to-back terrace would face onto a street with the back houses accessed via passages leading from the street. The same setup occurred on the opposite side of the street, forming a courtyard between the back houses.”

back to back housing farsley
Unusual back to backs in Farsley. Photo: Mark Stevenson

By the 1830s, back-to-back houses had a reputation for spreading disease, this lead to cities like Manchester and Liverpool prohibiting their construction in the 1840s and 1860s respectively. Around 1880 the Medical Officer for Health tried to ban the building of back-to-backs in Leeds.

He failed because it was argued that the Leeds Improvement Act of 1866 which required new “bye-law” houses to be built to a set of regulations, including gated yards, wider streets and an improved interior design structure.

back to back houses pudsey
Pretty: These back to backs in Pudsey have a different style all together. Photo: Mark Stevenson

In the 1880s a building boom began in West Leeds and many of the back-to-backs we see today were built.

In 1909 the building of new back-to-backs was outlawed. Last-minute planning applications put forward by developers who had been forewarned of the upcoming ban meant that the last back-to-back was built in Leeds in 1937.

In 1920 78,000 out of 108,000 houses in Leeds were back-to-back, around 19,000 survive today.

ARTICLE UPDATED 16/6/19 to acknowledge research by Joanne Harrison on back to back housing in Leeds. Read Joanne’s blog on the same subject here.


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