Jane Embury, our finance director, takes a two-part look at some milestones in fire regulation for buildings.
We tend to think of fire safety as something relatively new. We think of it as a modern and enlightened concept that places a value on everybody’s life.
Okay, it’s true that it was only in the 19th century that the safety of people inside buildings became a real safety concern. But fire regulation has been an issue for a much longer period of time. Back, in fact, to William the Conqueror in the 11th century.
Back then, the average house was built from timber, wattle and daub. This comprised a lattice of wooden strips covered with a mixture of soil, clay, sand, straw or animal dung. Roofs were generally thatched, and therefore flammable.
Inside, there was a central hearth and the floor, as often as not, was covered in straw. Chimneys, as we know them, didn’t exist. These residential firetraps were generally set side by side in narrow streets. So that if one caught fire, the chances were that others would also catch fire.
To counter this, William the Conqueror decided that all fires should be extinguished at night. The most popular method to achieve this was simple. A metal lid to cover the fire and, by not allowing air in, put the fire out.
This lid was called a couvert feu, from which is derived the modern word curfew.
In the 12th century, fire safety took another step forward when the Mayor of London decreed that houses should be stone-built and thatched roofs banned. Party walls were also to be of a minimum height and thickness.
In the next century, following a disastrous fire that killed some 3,000 people, further regulations were extended to alehouses and bakeries.
In the 14th century, the central hearth moved to the outside wall, creating a primitive cooking range. It was also ventilated by a form of chimney.
However, as these were often made from hollowed-out tree-trunks, this didn’t make things much safer, and often made things a lot worse. In the 15th century, wooden chimneys were made illegal.
Great Fire of London
The fire that changed everything was the 1666 Great Fire of London. The diarist Samuel Pepys described the aftermath of the fire as “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw.”
In the fire’s wake, London adopted a complete building code. This included the use of stone in new buildings, and the widening of streets to prevent fire spreading. It was an early form of containment, a fire safety concept with which we are familiar with today.
In the 18th century there were further developments. These included a fire regulation that specified that “every parish should provide three or more…ladders of one, two and three storeys high, for assisting persons in houses on fire to escape therefrom.” Elsewhere, every town and city had its own fire regulations, often at complete variance.
A spate of regulations followed in the first half of the 19th century, although different towns and cities still had different rules and codes. However, it didn’t go nearly far enough.
In 1887, following a disastrous fire in London’s Theater Royal in which 186 people died, came new legislation. This stated: “Every building [should] be substantially constructed and supplied with ample, safe, and convenient means of ingress and egress for the use of the public…”
It was an enlightened piece of legislation that should have guided fire safety ever since. However, as numerous fires have since demonstrated, providing, and enforcing, adequate escape routes still remains an issue.
In the second part of this look back the development of fire regulations, I’ll bring everything up-to-date!