PHYSICAL FABRIC Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London regulations houses construction building code fire prevention firefighting chimney oven walls assizes scavager
Subject: Fire protection measures
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Albus, ff.212, 213
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Liber Albus, Rolls Series, no.12, vol.1 (1859), 328-29, 333-335.
Original language: Latin and French
Location: London
Date: 12th to 14th centuries

House construction in ancient times

Memorandum that in ancient times the greater part of the houses in the city were of timber, and houses were roofed with straw, thatch or similar covering materials.

The consequence was that, when any house caught on fire, that fire burned down most of the city – such as happened in the first year of the reign of King Stephen [1135/36], when a fire began on London Bridge, burned down the church of St. Paul, and spread from there, consuming houses and buildings as far as the church of St. Clement Danes.

Thereafter many citizens, to avoid such risks as best they might, built houses with a base structure of stone, frequently roofed in tile, and protected against raging fires. So that it often happened that when a fire took hold in the city, and many structures were ravaged, it was not able to harm such [protected] houses when it reached them; and at such places the fire died out, so that many houses in the neighbourhood were saved from burning by that one house.

Therefore, in the aforesaid ordinance which is called the Assize, it is provided and ordained, so that citizens would be encouraged to build with stone, that anyone who shall have on his own land a stone wall 16 feet high shall possess it freely and rightfully as has been stated. That is, that his neighbour must always receive on his own land run-off from the house, via that wall, conveying it away at his own cost. And, should he wish to build next to that wall, he must make a gutter under the eaves of the house, to receive the run-off. In this way the house will remain safe and protected against any conflagration that reaches it, and thereby many houses may be saved and preserved, unharmed and unviolated by the flames.


Concerning the building of ovens

No man or woman is to build an oven, furnace, or chimney (open or enclosed), nor a reredos where fire is set for making bread or ale or for cooking meat, next to any partition-wall, lath-work, or boards, neither in a solar nor elsewhere, whereby the fire might easily cause a disaster. If anyone does so, the scavagers may forthwith have it removed or dismantled; for so doing, the scavagers shall have 4d. for every such nuisance removed or dismantled.

Concerning chimneys

No chimney such as already described is to be built, unless of stone, [or faced with] tiles or plaster, and not of timber, under penalty of it being torn down.


Concerning scot-ale

No resident of a ward is to hold a scot-ale there, nor in any other place within the liberties, under penalty of imprisonment.


Concerning ladders

All residents of large houses within the ward are to have one or two ladders on hand, available for assisting their neighbours in the unfortunate event of an outbreak of fire.

Concerning barrels filled with water

Every occupant of such houses shall have, during summertime and especially between Pentecost and the feast of St. Bartholomew [24 August], in front of his house a tub full of water for putting out any such fire, if the house does not have its own source of water.

Concerning the carpentry of houses

No house within the liberties is to be roofed with anything other than lead, tile or stone. If any other exists, it may be pulled down forthwith by the constables and scavagers, they taking for their efforts [the payment] already mentioned.

Concerning iron crooks

The reputable men of the ward, together with the alderman, should provide a sturdy iron crook with a wooden handle, along with two chains and two strong cords. The beadle is to have a good, loud-sounding horn.


In the first year of office of the first mayor of London, Henry fitz Ailwin, in 1189, the city authorities promulgated what is the earliest known building code in English history, along with a mechanism to deal with related disputes between neighbours. The date when fitz Ailwin became mayor has been subject to question; however, the document is unambiguous in giving the year (in two forms) and in stating that it was during fitz Ailwin's mayoralty. The building code is therefore known to history as Fitz-Ailwin's Assize, because of the judicial procedure it established for policing and enforcing the regulations.

Those regulations mainly concerned themselves with those features of buildings most likely to lead to nuisance complaints from neighbours or passers-by, such as:

  • the construction of a structure, or part thereof, on land of disputed ownership or posing a possible threat to neighbouring property;
  • responsibility for partition-walls shared by adjoining houses, and for the rain-gutters built atop them (at the bottom of the point where neighbours' sloping roofs met) – with particular attention to where the rainwater ran off;
  • restriction (to one foot) of the depth to which cupboards could be created within the partition-walls (which were three feet thick);
  • distance between a indoor privy's pit and the edge of the property, which was to be 2½ feet if the pit were lined with stone, but 3½ feet otherwise;
  • blockage by new construction of light to a neighbour's window (permitted, unless a prior agreement existed between neighbours to the contrary).
The regulations also dwelt on the procedures for holding assizes to hear such disputes, which involved the assize jury viewing the property and/or structures subject to a complaint.

A lesser purpose of the regulations was to make some provision for fire protection, with particular reference to commercial establishment where large or intense fires were required for cooking. The memory of a major fire tempore King Stephen was still in the minds of some of the city's patricians. The code did no more than advocate the use of stone for building; but the expense of bringing stone to London meant that wood remained the predominant construction material. The provisions certainly did not prevent another major fire in the city, in 1212, which prompted a reiteration of some parts of the Assize as well as of aspects of other ordinances, also concerned with fire prevention or suppression, that were copied into the Liber Albus almost immediately after the record of Fitz-Ailwin's Assize, and appear to be enactments in the years following the promulgation of the Assize.

The extracts given here begin with those from the Assize, and were augmented by ordinances of later date – some perhaps as late as the early fourteenth century – before they found their way into the Liber Albus. The preface also evidently post-dates Fitz-Ailwin's Assize. The regulations are concerned with both fire prevention and fire suppression. A second set of regulations has been separately translated.



"St. Clement Danes "
This church was in a suburb west of the walled city. It is not clear whether the text means that the city from the bridge to St. Pauls (near the western edge of the walled area) was affected by the fire, before it continued westwards beyond the walls).

"stone wall"
It was prescribed that walls separating properties (whether part of a building or stand-alone) should be 3' thick; it was hoped that the neighbours would jointly fund and own such a wall. A wall of 16' represents the usual height, to the edge of the roof, of a two-storey house of this period, supporting beams for upper floors having been placed at a height of 8'; in 1276, however, regulations required pentices or roof gutters to be at least 9' off the ground.

"receive on his own land"
Normally gutters were expected to empty onto the land of the building served by the gutter; in this case, however, the importance of the firewall took precedence.

In this context, it meant the back part of a fireplace against the wall or an open hearth in the centre of a room; an additional wall of stone, sometimes with an iron back, it represented an effort to contain hearth-fires, prior to the widespread use of the fully enclosed fireplace-chimney. Later the term was used for an additional fireproof partition installed behind a fireplace.

This refers to a wall covered with narrow strips of wood to support plaster; frame houses often had walls made of lath and plaster, at least in their upper section (the lower might be a stone foundation).

The scavengers were minor bureaucratic officials whose responsibilities included policing the building assize. The "fee" they took for doing their duty was due from the offender.

On the meaning of scot-ales, see the notes to the Northampton charter of 1189. For the significance of this entry, see the second set of regulations.

"source of water"
The original has fountaigne, which might refer to almost any source of water, such as a spring, stream-fed pool, cistern, or a well, which (if existing) would have been in the courtyard or rear garden of a property.

This would have been a longer version of the traditional shepherd's crook. It, along with the chains and ropes, were to be used in pulling down houses that were on fire (and doubtless did double service, in cases where houses not conforming with regulations had to be demolished), or perhaps for attempting to detach from the main structure parts of the building that were on fire, e.g. roof thatch. The beadle was an officer responsible, among other things, for making public announcements and in this context acted to sound the alarm and summon the neighbourhood to fire-fighting.

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Created: August 27, 2004. Last update: September 1, 2004 © Stephen Alsford, 2004