Three hundred and fifty years ago today, a fire broke out at a bakery on Pudding Lane. The rest, as they say, is history.
Starting on a Sunday, the Great Fire raged until the following Wednesday, having ripped through the dense wooden buildings of the time. It destroyed 80 per cent of the City, some 13,000 homes. The conflagration, the only word considered suitably descriptive by contemporary sources, burnt so hot that it exploded the stones of old St Paul’s and melted not just the lead from church roofs but also the locks of the city gates.
This singular event is often considered to be the genesis of modern building regulations. After all, within days Charles II had issued a proclamation concerning the rebuilding; in weeks, grandiose plans for the new City had emerged (including one from Sir Christopher Wren). And by February 1667, a comprehensive Act was passed by Parliament, which issued restrictive rules governing what could be built and where.
It empowered the City Corporation to appoint surveyors to control all the work within their boundary, a forerunner to the present day district surveyor. The Act also created a mechanism for paying for the reconstruction of public buildings, the coal tax, which, with little irony, ensured that a tax on fires within the City paid for the damage of the Great Fire.
The new regulations intended to create a less flammable city. They defined only four types of building that could be built which depended on the type of street the site fronted. Materials were restricted to brick and stone, and wood was almost entirely banned from the exterior of buildings. Compared with those of today, the regulations were draconian, insisting on a prescriptive uniformity that clashed with what had existed before and has come since.
The speed at which the City was rebuilt is therefore surprising, particularly considering the amount of work it entailed and the fact that England had recently experienced both war and plague. Despite this, the majority of work was completed by the early 1670s with only really the restoration of public buildings remaining. It is apparent that such restrictive regulation did little to hinder the progress of construction.
It would be wrong, however, to claim the 1667 Act as the first building regulations. Legislation pre-dating the fire had already banned thatched roofs and insisted on building in brick and stone. The risk of fire was well known before 1666 and steps had already been taken to reduce its impact. What can be said is that the Great Fire was a wake-up call and prompted the first large scale adoption of regulated building work. That the fire of 1666 remains the Great Fire is testament to the fact that the building regulations work and have adapted to the changing use of the City and advances in construction.
Subsequent London and National Building Acts have developed the regulations with the aim of ensuring the complete safety of people in and about buildings. The changes have often come progressively, but some have been introduced retroactively after other unfortunate events.
In this way, the aftermath of the fire continues today.