Fire Safety throughout History in England

Fire has always been an integral part of society. And while it started as a positive discovery it did not take long to realise how destructive it can be. Especially by expanding the city life in medieval times, the fire hazards increased drastically due to the inappropriate construction material and specific building type: wooden building with thatch roofing tightly packed together, meaning that flames could easily spread from one building to another. Furthermore, the fire could have started at one of many unprotected fire sources such as open fireplaces, candles, ovens, and stores of combustibles.

The members of the public were patrolling the streets (e.g. ‘watchmen’ and ‘bellmen’) in order to alert the others by ringing the church bells, however, on many occasions, this was not enough. Not only fires were easily ignited and spread, but the firefighting efforts could not be executed properly due to the overcrowded narrow alleys and other obstructions. The firefighting methods relied on demolition and/or water – some buildings were demolished by pulling down the buildings (use of the ‘firehooks’) or with the controlled gunpowder while the extinguishing of the flames was the job of the leather buckets filled with water.

An example of these fire buckets can be seen in the figure below. This specific fire bucket is an asset of Aura Fire.

An example of these fire buckets can be seen in the figure on the right. This specific fire bucket is an asset of Aura Fire.

This bucket is important to us to see how much society has changed through history when it comes to fire safety issues and fire safety culture. And also, unfortunately, what we had to go through as a society in order to establish the proper fire safety regulations and overcome those devastating events.

In England, the first fire safety rules were introduced as a result of the Great Fire of London, which started on 2 September 1666, when the fire destroyed approximately 15 percent of the city of London and its rebuilding took about 30 years.

These first Fire Safety rules have changed the use of the standard wooden construction in London with new builds out of stone, while the roads were widened for easier fire-fighting access. The post-great-fire insurers’ regulations were protecting property and not life. There were multiple Fire Services that were only fighting the fire of their own insurance company. It was only 1833 when all Fire Services united into one private single Fire Brigade and 1866 when the Government took over and created the public Fire Service.



It was not until the 19th century when the safety of people has become the main focus in the cases of fire. Fire science started to be studied further while fire testing has been established in order to prove some of the previous theories. In the London Building Acts [1930 – 1939] many new ‘means of escape’ features have been described, however with some push-back from local authorities. It wasn’t until 1965 that the first building regulations for England and Wales were made and become a legal document replacing the local laws, finally creating the Fire Precautions Act in 1971, regarding the means of escape in case of fire. This document was effectively applied for more than 20 years to hotels, offices, retails, railway stations and factories, but not to other buildings with different uses. In a desire to consolidate all fire safety legislation under one document, the Fire Precaution (Workplace) Regulations were introduced in 1997. In early 2000s, the legislation was simplified and with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, in England and Wales. Today, there are 58 different codes and standards which deal with Fire Safety, in the UK alone.