A guest post by London Historians member, Ken Whittick.
Not many of us pause to consider that the built environment which surrounds us, particularly in London, every day of our lives is – and has been – subject to a series of building regulations from the 12th century up to the present day.
Efforts had been made from the 12th century to try and control both the quality and density of construction in London in order to reduce the danger of fire and disease. There is evidence to indicate that some form of control had been tried before this time in the Anglo-Saxon period, although this cannot now be proved.
The first written form of regulation dates from 1274 and was in the form of an Asssize of Building contained within the Liber de Antiquis Legibus, written in Latin, and now held in the London Metropolitan archives. This document which contains the earliest regulations would not nowadays be considered specific enough for modern construction practice. The next known written form of regulation was the Asssize of Building contained in the document known as the Liber Albus, written in the early 15th century and attributed to the then clerk to the Common Council, John Carpenter during the Mayorality of Richard Whittington, also held in the London Metropolitan archives. This was a slightly more detailed version of the previous Assize, and was the basis for building regulations until the first parliamentary statute which was passed in 1666/7 during the reign of Charles II.
The main thrust of the regulations was to try and reduce the risk of fire and disease within the city. The use of timber framing and thatched roofs and wattle and daub walls, created an ever present hazard of fire, and created the ideal breeding ground for vermin such as rats and mice and cockroaches. The ideal which was aimed at was to encourage the citizens to build in brick with tiled roofs. The temptation however to use the cheaper form of construction was overwhelming.
It was apparent during the period from the 12th to the 17th centuries that the citizens of London took very little notice of the regulations and successive monarchs tried to reinforce them by issuing Proclamations. There are in these Royal proclamations, indications that the monarchs considered that some of the infringements were made by members of the Common Council including the Mayor and Sheriffs, the very people who should have been enforcing them.
We are nowadays very used to the concept of a green-belt around London and other cities, but interestingly this idea was first put forward in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It was found that London was expanding outside the city walls and this was jeopardising the amount of land immediately available to grow the food necessary to feed the population of London. It was therefore proclaimed that no new building was to take place within 3 miles of the city walls.
It took the outbreak of numerous smaller fires and plagues in the city of London, culminating in the plague of 1665 and the great Fire of 1666, to convince the authorities that far more stringent steps had to be taken to enforce a code of building which would eliminate – or at least reduce – the problems of fire and plague in the city.
Ken Whittick’s company, Londoniarum, specialises in publishing books about construction law history in London and associated subjects.