PHYSICAL FABRIC Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London regulations houses construction building code fire prevention firefighting craftsmen wages roof night-watch
Subject: Regulations for building construction and fire safety
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Custumarum, f.52
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Munimenta Gildhallae Londoniensis: Liber Custumarum, Rolls Series, no.12, vol.2 (1860), 86-88.
Original language: Latin
Location: London
Date: early 13th century


Recommendations made by the council of reputable men for the purpose of calming and pacifying an angry citizenry, and to protect against fires, with God's help.

Firstly, they advise that all scot-ales be prohibited, unless they have received a licence from the Common Council of the city at the Guildhall, other than for those who are willing to build with stone, so that the city may be protected; on condition that the proceeds are handed over to two reputable men and by them put towards the renovation of the building. And that no baker is to bake, nor brewer brew, at night with [a fire fuelled by] reeds, straw, or thatch, but only with firewood.

Carpenters may take [for wages] only 3d. a day with a meal, or 4½d. total without a meal.

Masons and tilers may take the same wages, but the workmen of masons and others shall be satisfied with 1½d. with meal, or 3d. total.

Masons of freestone [may take] 2½d. with meal, or 4d. total.

Whitewashers, daubers, and plasterers [may take] 2d. with meal, or 3½d. total. Their workmen, 1½d. with meal, or 2½d. total.

Excavators and wheelbarrow operators [may take] 1½d. with meal, or 2½d. total.

They recommend that all cook-shops by the Thames should be whitewashed and plastered, inside and out; and all internal partitions or compartments should be taken down throughout, so that there remains simply the house and its internal chamber.

Whoever wishes to build within city or Portsoken is to see to it that he and his [builders?] take care not to cover [the roof] with reeds, nor rushes, nor any kind of straw, nor thatch; but only with tiles, shingles, boards, or (if possible) with lead, or with the outside plastered.

All houses which until now have been roofed with reeds or rushes, and which are able to be plastered, are to be plastered within eight days. Those to which this is not done within the specified period are to be pulled down under supervision of the alderman and law-abiding men.

All timber houses which are close to the stone houses in the marketplace, whereby they post a threat to the stone houses or the marketplace, are to be repaired so that they are safe, under supervision of the mayor, sheriffs and the reputable men of the city, or [if that cannot be done] pulled down, no matter to whom they belong, without exception.

Watchmen and those who keep watch by night to safeguard [the city] are to go out [i.e. begin their watch] in daylight and return in daylight. Those who have to be summoned [to their duty] shall be amerced 40s. by the city. All houses in which there are bakeries or breweries shall be whitewashed and plastered inside and out, as protection against fire.

All for-hire workmen who are of the city or the Portsoken, if they do not observe and obey the aforesaid [regulations regarding wages] all their lands, houses and goods will be confiscated, and put entirely to the use of the city. No resident of the city or Portsoken, if faithful to God and the city, should pay them more [than specified above].

Outsiders who come into the city as workmen and are unwilling to respect the above recommendations shall be held under arrest until they can be brought before the mayor and reputable men, there to hear sentence passed against them.

Every alderman should be in possession of a suitable crook and cord; whoever does not have them within the specified period shall be amerced by the city. They [i.e. the councillors] also think it would be advisable to place in front of each house a wooden or stone tub full of water.

These [regulations] were made on Monday, 24 [? 23] July, 1212, at the Guildhall, Henry fitz Ailwin then mayor and other barons of the city then being present, their intent being to deliberate on behalf of the city on the calamitous fire which broke out here on 11 July of the same year [and lasted] for ten days thereafter. Which fire, to our greatest dismay, utterly destroyed London Bridge and many other splendid buildings, and sent innumerable men and women to their graves.


The anger of the citizen, to quell which the city authorities had to take action, was occasioned by a fire which, Matthew Paris recorded, broke out on the night of 11 July 1212. It destroyed a large part of London, including part of London Bridge (and the chapel built thereon) despite the fact that the bridge had only recently been rebuilt in stone, and part of Southwark including the church of St. Mary there. It was believed about a thousand residents were killed during the ten days that the fire raged.

With smoke still lingering among the ashes of the newly extinguished fire, the city assembly met under the presidency of Henry fitz Ailwin, then in the last year of his long mayoralty and his life, to draw up measures for rebuilding along lines that would help prevent future fires. It seems that the earlier building code had not been taken to heart by the citizens, or was not being effectively enforced, for the second code re-emphasized the need for precautions that would discourage the spread of any fire that started. That first code had encouraged use of stone for building, but undoubtedly the expense of bringing stone to London meant that wood remained the predominant construction material.

The second set of regulations also reaffirmed other stipulations of the original code and of related ordinances that had supplemented it in the following years. The latter for example had prohibited scot-ales and empowered the city council to set wage levels for hired craftsmen and labourers. Also among those ordinances were requirements that stalls set up outside houses (for retailing) be removable and not project out more than 2½ feet from the house-front; and that pentices (the upper storey that partially overhung the street) be high enough that riders on horseback could pass easily underneath.

The effectiveness of all these regulations, not least the requirement for thick partition walls between properties, is suggested by the fact that London is not known to have suffered any further extensive fires until the Great Fire of 1666. The citizens themselves seem to have become more conscious of the need for construction standards. They were quick to complain about any defects in their neighbours' property, notably extensions that intruded onto public thoroughfares. By the fourteenth century, the city was retaining two masons and two carpenters to act as surveyors of property, to identify defective construction or give advice on major building projects.

To offer a contrast: not until 1473 at Coventry do we find measures to deal with buildings that were so dilapidated as to present a public hazard, and not until the following year the first promulgation against use of thatch for roofing. The issues were addressed only through fining the owners. There had earlier been a requirement that anyone demolishing a house should rebuild it within a year, but this may have had less to do with issues of public safety than with loss of public income.



On the meaning of scot-ales, see the notes to the Northampton charter of 1189. They had been outrightly, but perhaps ineffectually, prohibited by an apparently earlier ordinance (although the ordinance, which is undated, may have been later than the above). So it seems the intent of the city here was to permit them, as a source of revenue to itself and as incentives for raising funding for rebuilding in fire-resistant materials. Licensing of persistent offences was a common way of exerting some measure of control, when suppression was impracticable. The implication of this ordinance seems to be that such gatherings could become rowdy and damage might result.

The term could be use for any type of stone, but was applied particularly to sandstone or limestone, which was easy to cut and dress (and so very suitable for building needs). Masons of freestone were later known as freemasons.

Artisans who used a mud/clay/straw mix to fill in spaces between the wooden frames of buildings; whitewashers or plasterers would then cover this over with a more appealing outer coat.

"internal chamber"
The internal chamber which was to be permitted within a cook-shop was probably a privy.

A suburban area outside of Aldgate. Originally part of the soke (private or partially independent jurisdiction) of the mysterious Cnihtengild, it was granted to the priory of Holy Trinity in 1125 and was thereafter the only extramural ward of the city, the prior being the ward alderman. There were in fact several areas in the city which were referred to as portsoken, in the general sense of a soke that was in or part of the city, and other towns (e.g. Nottingham) incorporated similar areas.

The West Cheap (now Cheapside), "chepe" being an Anglo-Saxon term for market, and surviving in the modern term for a good buy. The threat referred to was the vulnerability of the timber houses to fire.

The section on non-resident workmen, in the original, follows the sentence about crook and cord. Yet, as Riley notes, it seems misplaced. I have therefore moved it slightly, to a more logical position in the text.

This would have been a long, sturdy rod with a metal hook at one end.

The 24th July fell on a Tuesday in 1212. Because of the leap year, there was no Monday 24th July in adjacent years. So we may have a scribal error for the day.

A term used to refer to the citizens of London, including in royal charters and on the city's first common seal. Its implication seems to have been that, because they were under the direct and sole lordship of the king, and perhaps because of special military services they provided to the king, the citizens considered themselves on a par, in certain regards at least, with the barons of the aristocracy. It is not clear whether the king considered this a special status, as it may appear on first glance; the civic authorities tried to claim exemption from tallage – a taxation particularly associated with commoners – on grounds of their special status and ancient liberties, but with only limited success. Application of the apellation was later restricted in a manner not originally intended. The townsmen of Winchelsea were also referred to by this term, and those of the Cinque Ports in general.

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Created: August 27, 2004. Last update: May 16, 2017 © Stephen Alsford, 2004-2017