Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Formed by Fire

Recently, I have been helping my wife with research into fire engines. She is interested in the equipment used around 1862 when hand pumped engines were still more common than the new steam engines. But it drew my attention back to the fact that regulations against fire were one of the main factors that made period houses ‘typical’. The earliest building regulations were intended to limit the spread of fire in times when, heating, cooking and lighting all involved naked flames from open fires, torches and candles. Thatched roofs were banned in London as early as 1216 because they were such a fire risk. After the Great Fire of London, the 1667 London Building Act was passed by parliament. It applied to newly built houses. This banned timber framed buildings as well as thatched. Although the London Building Acts only applied to the capital, they were copied by local authorities in other towns such as Lichfield which finally banned thatched roofs in 1690.
 Above top: timber framed house in East Grinstead (1599) Above: the  oldest existing brick  terrace in London (Stoke Newington, 1658)

 Successive acts tried to make houses more fireproof by stripping off all external woodwork and making windows more recessed. The intention was to make the street into an effective firebreak. These regulations gave each period distinctive features; for example, it is easy to tell early Georgian from mid or late Georgian. An early Georgian house has windows with frames which are level with the front wall. A mid Georgian house has windows which are set back four inches. A late Georgian house has windows which are recessed (the face of the wall is built in front of the window box). By the mid Georgian period wooden door cases had been banned along with any other projecting wooden items. In London during the late Georgian period front walls were built up into a parapet to form a more effective fire break. Also party walls between terraced houses had to be built up above and through the roof (known as an upstand). Other towns copied the London Acts; such as Warwick, which had been destroyed by fire in 1694. It was rebuilt under an Act of Parliament based on the 1667 London Act. Bristol followed suite in 1778. Building in brick or stone became standard in towns.

 The 1774 London Building Act went even further: it sorted houses into four rates and it specified the street width according to the height of the houses. The four rates of the 1774 Act predicted the social class of the occupants. The largest size or First Rate was for ‘the nobility’. These were houses of over 900 square feet on the entrance floor. They were exceptional rather than typical but the Second Rate for ‘merchants’ were typical large Late Georgian houses (500 to 900 square feet on the entrance floor). The Third Rate was described as for ‘clerks’ (350 to 500 square feet on the entrance floor). This resulted in medium sized houses. The Fourth Rate was for ‘mechanics’ or artisans (less than 350 square feet on the entrance floor). This gave us the small house. In the late Georgian period large, medium and small  houses were all built in similar flat-fronted, brick terraces. The London Building act of 1774 also specified street width in relation to the height of the houses. This created whole streets and even neighbourhoods of the same size of house.

1 comment:

  1. Completely fascinating - I shall look at the terraces around me with newly-informed eyes. Thank you.