After the Romans

When the Roman legions left, the Angles and Saxons moved in. The Roman- British had enjoyed for nearly four hundred years the Pax Romana and the protection of a trained army. Without this protection they were no match for the fierce sea-raiders and were murdered, enslaved or driven west to the mountains. 

The flame of invasion blazed from sea to sea, wrote the Welsh monk Gildas. Fire protection and fire fighting became a forgotten lore and were replaced by the burning torch of the marauders. 

The Saxons soon lost their seagoing habits when they found the rich inland soil. They became farmers and settled in rural townships in forest clearings, avoiding the charred, haunted ruins of the Roman towns, fearing perhaps the ghosts of those they had murdered there. 

They built houses made of the split trunks of trees set vertically side by side, or primitive shacks of wattle and mud; these were grouped around the big log hall of the lord. According to William of Malmesbury, even the nobles were content with mean and despicable houses and were more inclined to dissipation than the accumulation of wealth. Each house must have been a formidable fire risk; a hole in the thatched roof let out the wood smoke from the fire that burned in the centre of the floor; around this slept the family, sometimes tipsy from the heavy mead they loved to drink, their only light the fire or a rush burning in fat. But if the house burned down escape was easy, the risk to other houses slight, and soon axes would be ringing in the forest to provide the wood for a new dwelling and at the same time to win more land for the plough. Where there was no wealth, no risk of fire spread from contiguous dwellings, and rebuilding was so easy that the Roman art of fire fighting was soon forgotten, even if it had been acquired. 

For nearly four hundred years the Saxon-English enjoyed their conquests undisturbed. Then those of the north and east fell to the marauding Danes almost as easily as the Britons had succumbed to the Anglo-Saxons. Only in Wessex under King Alfred did the Saxons hold out, and Alfred, after victories and defeats and study of his enemies methods, evolved a new system of dealing with the menace. Danish armies had seized a strategic site, stockaded it and provisioned it from the surrounding countryside, making it impossible for the English to bring them to action except at the Danes’ own time, nor to maintain an army in the vicinity. After his victory at Ashenden and the Treaty of Wedmore, Alfred turned these sites into permanent English settlements- FExeter, Winchester, Oxford and Shafts- bury. They were surrounded with earthworks and wooden stockades, and peopled with the pick of the kingdom’s manhood. By the end of his reign Alfred had founded twenty such towns and was overcoming the English prejudice against urban life. In these towns the rude houses, no longer scattered in a forest clearing, were closely packed within the palisade. A fire could spread from house to house and destroy them all, leaving the defenders without shelter and the district at the mercy of the army which on such a disaster might sweep out of the eastern counties of the Danelaw. Night was the most dangerous time, when the inhabitants snoring on their rushes could not be mobilised quickly to deal with the outbreak, and a law was passed and first enforced at Oxford in 872 that at the ringing of an evening bell all house fires were to be extinguished. 

Alfred had stayed the Danish conquest and after his death Dane and Saxon traded, intermarried and integrated. The civilising influence of Christianity spread through the land and it was to the Church that the people turned when threatened by fire as by any other disaster. The churches° methods were not altogether practical; the carrying of saints’ bones around the burning buildings and the ringing of church bells were considered efficacious. Sometimes the prayers of a living saint were effective and Bede gives an account of a fire in Canterbury in 624 which he says was stopped by the aged Archbishop Mellitus. “The great fire reached the church of the four crowned martyrs, the casting of water would not stop it and it came rushing towards the Cathedral. Mellitus, suffering from gout, had himself carried there, and himself flaming with divine love and sanctity prayed, whereupon the wind miraculously changed and blew the fire away.” 

Pope John IX ordered special bells to be cast, which were consecrated with imposing ceremony and sprinkled with holy oil. They were for use against thunder and lightning as well as fire. The fire bell still hangs in Sherborne Abbey with its inscription:

“Lord, quench this furious flame. Arise, run, help, put out the same.”

The ringing of church bells was not entirely mystical, for they served as a warning to inhabitants that something was amiss So that they would run to the church and be available for fire fighting. A special signal was needed to distinguish the alarm from ordinary ringing and from very early times the warning consisted of “eringing the bells backward”, or a reverse peal. This method of calling volunteer firemen persisted in rural areas until the twentieth century.

In a Spanish account of the Great Fire of London (1666) it was stated that since the churches had only heretic bells “their only effect was to make a noise and not to act as any help”.

The constant reiteration in later years that fires were sent by God as a just punishment for the wickedness of the afflicted town gives interest to the Saxon theory that they were sometimes caused by the Devil. 

Peterborough was burnt in 1116 in a fire which was said to have lasted nine days and left only the Cathedral, refectory and chapter. The Anglo- Saxon Chronicle records that a servant in the bakehouse was angry because the fire would not burn properly and said: . *As you will not burn for me, may the devil burn you.’ As soon as he had named the devil, by the devil’s cunning the fire burst into flames and leaped up to the beams, and burned all the houses and the whole of the monastery, and in the town no house remained entire.” 

The Normans came and conquered in 1066, and one of the first of William’s ordinances was the extension throughout the land of the law requiring house fires to be extinguished at nightfall and its strict enforce- ment. The simplest way of putting out the fire burning on the open hearth was to put a metal cover over it and exclude the air. From the Norman French this cover was called a Couvre Feu, which on English tongues became Curfew; and the evening bell which tolled the order ·lights out’ was known as the Curfew bell. It was to ring in parts of England for the next eight hundred years, long after its original purpose had been forgotten. Fire prevention was the plea which excused the rigorous application of this irksome law, but probably the Normans were not indifferent to its power to curb secret night assembly and plotting among their English subjects and it was referred to as the “odious tyranny of the conqueror’. The poet Thompson refers to it in the couplet:

“The shivering wretches at the curfew sound Dejected sank into their sordid beds.”

In 1100 the penalties incurred by non-compliance were abolished. 

The biggest risks in the Norman towns were the fine new churches the conquerors had built and the history of our Cathedrals contain many references to disastrous fires. 

Ingulphus gives a contemporary account of the burning of Crowland Abbey in 1091. The first Abbey was built in 714 on oak piles driven into the peat and was only of wood and wattle with a thatched roof. 

The Danes came in 870 and broke open the tombs of the saints, looking for treasure buried with them. They found none and fired the Abbey, throwing the treasured relics into the flames. The church with its outbuild- ings must have been of considerable size, for the chronicler says it was fired on the seventh day before the Calends of September, the flames continuing to burn incessantly for the next fifteen days. No attempt at extinguishing the fire was made, for the inhabitants “hid themselves in their fright”. 

The new Abbey was built of stone brought from Rutland and was a fine, substantial church. Ingulphus had been appointed Abbot by William the Conqueror in 1076. His Latin manuscript tells us that

“the plumber had been preparing his lead for repairs on the tower of the church a whole day, when he went to his supper, and foolishly left his embers covered up for the next day. Supper being ended, and all the ser- vants retired to rest, in the middle of the night the north wind rising, blew the burning embers through the lattices upon the beams that were nearest, where finding dry fuel, the fire soon blazed up, and caught hold of the larger beams. The townspeople saw a great light in the steeple, but sup- posed the officers of the church or the plumber were doing some work there: at length seeing the flames burst out, they knocked violently at the doors of the monastery. It was about the first watch of the night, when we were all in our first and soundest sleep. Waked by the loud noise, and hastening to the window, I saw as plainly as at noon-day all the servants of the house running to the church. I immediately put on my nightgown, and called up my companions, and made the best of my way to the cloister, where the light blazed like a thousand torches.”

He described how he ran into the church and was nearly killed by the melting lead which gave him a grievous wound on the shoulder. The monks had not yet been roused, though their dormitory was threatened if not already partly involved. The Abbot says %they were SO dead asleep I could hardly awaken them, but on the alarm of fire they sprang out of their windows naked and many were grievously shook by the fall. The brethren flocking to me in the court and seeing many of them naked I endeavoured  to regain my apartment to procure them some clothes but so great was the heat that the boldest and youngest were afraid to venture.” 

The account shows that there was much confusion but little fire fighting; chapter house, dormitory, refectory, infirmary, strangers’ hall and converts’ hall were destroyed, and even the ash trees and willows that grew around were consumed.

Ingulphus said that the dismal scene drew tears from his eyes, but when the great tower fell the noise ofit had such an effect that he sank motionless to the ground and was carried to the porters’ lodge. He did not revive until next day when he “found the brethren standing round me faint and drowned in tears, and some of them miserably bruised and burnt”. 

The foundation stone of the third Abbey was laid in 1113. Thirty years later the unfinished work was again razed by fire.

 It was not only the carelessness of workmen that threatened the Cathedrals. Some of them were in constant danger from the proximity of thatched shops and dwellings built in too close proximity for safety. In 1174 the whole of the choir of Canterbury Cathedral was destroyed when fire spread from the nearby house of Lambin Frese, the minter. After this disaster the monks decided to get this dangerous trade with its furnace and melting-pots removed to a safe distance and they paid the minter ten marks on condition that he moved to new premises provided by them in Stour Street.

They then went into the whole question of the shops on the north side of Burgate which encroached so closely on the cathedral walls and by ex- change of property got them all emptied. Gervase was given cathedral property in Friday Street, London, in exchange for his shop; others ex- changed for cathedral property in Canterbury. John Cauldron wanted no inducement to leave his home; he joined the monks, who pensioned his wife. The beautifully written Charter deeds of these transactions, confirmed by Henry II and dated 1177, can still be seen in the cathedral archives. When the exchanges were complete, the monks pulled down the street and rebuilt it at a safer distance with new buildings of stone and tile which they let on repairing leases, which included the clause that all repairs must be done in stone or tile and no thatch was to be used. 

This action may have saved the cathedral, for a disastrous conflagration devastated the town in 1198 and the finest twelfth-century survey of a British city still existing is that made by the monks following this fire. 

The villages of Britain were growing into towns and cities, congested and enclosed by defensive walls and full of mean dwellings roofed with thatch. Records of great fires are frequent, though details are in every case scant. In 1086 the growing City of London was almost destroyed. The chronicler says:

“So great and lamentable a fire happened in London that beginning at Aldgate it burned down houses and churches all the way to Ludgate to- gether with the stately Fabrick of St. Pauls and the strong castle called the Palatine Tower, the stones of which castle were afterwards employed for re-edifying St. Pauls in the place where that Old Fabrick stood. The weather was so inclement that in the unusual efforts made to warm the houses nearly all the chief cities of the kingdom were destroyed, including a great part of London and St. Pauls.”

This eleventh-century experience is repeated today and reflected in a sharp increase in fire calls during spells of severe weather through overstoking of boilers and hearths. There is no record of any organised fire fighting at this time. The church bells would ring their reverse peals and the inhabitants would hurry to the outbreak to render what disorganised assistance they could. The twelfth century brought as many disasters as its predecessor–

“1102 Winchester burned, 1113 Worcester City and Castle burned, 1116 Bath burned, 1123 Lincoln almost burnt down, 1130 the City of Chichester with the principal monastery, a stately building, was wholly burnt down to the ground. Also Worcester and Rochester were wholly consumed even in the king’s presence. Then Winchester, Bath, Gloucester, Lincoln, Peter- borough and other places did also partake of this calamity; that there could be no charging the Fire with any partiality. 1137 the whole city of York with the Cathedral and thirty-nine churches, 1140 Nottingham burned to ashes, 1184 Glastonbury town and Abbey consumed, 1189 the whole City of Carlisle, the Abbey and all the houses belonging to the Friars.”

Fitzstephen, writing during the reign of Henry II, said “the only plagues of London are immoderate drinking by idle fellows and often fires”, and in 1189, the last year of Henry’s reign, steps to allay the danger by law were taken. The first Lord Mayor, Henry Fitz-Alwin, issued his assize of building, “concerning buildings between neighbours”. The order laid down that “no houses should be built in the City but of stone and that they be covered with slate or burnt tile”. The dangerous thatched roof was banned. Party walls at least sixteen feet in height and three feet in breadth were to be provided in places at the common cost which would also provide funds for “digging pits for water’ and gutters to receive and convey water from houses. The same year the city wardmotes strengthened the ordnance with the following rules.

“Item -That all persons who dwell in great houses within the ward have a ladder or two ready and prepared to succour their neighbours in case misadventure should occur from fire. 

“Item- That all persons who occupy such houses have in summertime and especially between the Feast of Pentecost and the Feast of St. Bartholomewi before their doors a barrelful of water for quenching such fire, if it be not a house which has a fountain of its own.

“Item- That ten reputable men of the ward, with the alderman, provide a strong crook of iron with a wooden handle, together with two chains and two strong cords and that the beadle have a good horn and loudly sounding.”

The strong crook of iron with its wooden handle, chains and cords was to be a feature of British fire fighting for many years. Its purpose was to drag off the burning thatch and to hook into the gables or other members and pull down the house to make a fire break. A few still survive, hanging in churches, in the Cathedral gateway at Canterbury, on the wall ofThaxted (Essex) town hall and other places. They are of great size, some thirty feet long and ten inches diameter in the staff, and horses were sometimes harnessed to them to pull down a building. Some houses were built with a strong iron ring let into the gable into which the fire hook could be inserted.

Evidence of their provision can be seen in old town record books and minutes. The accounts of the Keepers and Governors of the Town and Community of Beverley for 1556 record the purchase of “One great irn croke whith chyne for plucking downe houses at skathe fyres. 6s. 8d.” 

This same Yorkshire town of Beverley was but one year behind London in attempting to enforce the building of stone houses, but the chronicler states this was only done by the rich, and the poor still lived in timber and mud and straw dwellings. 

In 1212, towards the close of King John’s reign, a disaster occurred in London which, if contemporary figures are to be believed, caused the greatest death-roll of any British fire. There were, say the historians, three thousand fatalities. It was July 12th and the fire started near and consumed the Priory of St. Mary Overie and St. Thomas Chapel in Southwark. A great crowd assembled on London Bridge (according to the record they came to help the distressed sufferers) when flying brands set fire to the wooden houses on the north side of the bridge and they were trapped be- tween the two conflagrations. To avoid the flames many flung themselves into boats but these sank with the people crowding into them. “The fire likewise for want of hands to extinguish it burned a great part of the city north and south of the bridge.” 

Until 1666 this disaster was known as the Great Fire of London. Henry IlI succeeded John, and in the civil war that followed, the Mem- oranda Rolls tell of an interesting if impracticable device for incendiary attack. They record that Richard of Suthcherche levied requisition on the towns of the Chafford Hundred, Essex, of oats for horses, provisions for soldiers, linen, tow and eggs for wound dressings, picks, calthrops and spades to lay low the walls of London and finally forty cocks, to whose feet he declared he would tie fire and send them flying into London to burn it down. Perhaps Simon de Montfort’s soldiers found a better use for the birds.

In 1246 it was found necessary to reissue and reaffirm Henry Fitz-Alwin’s assize, especially in respect to all houses in the city being covered with tiles instead of thatch, and even then there seem to have been loopholes, for fifty-six years later, in 1382,

“Thomas Bat came before John le Blund, Mayor of London, and the Aldermen, on the Friday next before the Feast of St. Hilary [13 Jan.] in the 30th year of the reign of King Edward, son of King Henry, and bound himself and all his rents, land, and tenements, to keep the City of London indemnified from peril of fire and other losses which might arise from his houses covered with thatch, in the Parish of St. Laurence Candelwyk- strete; and he agreed that he would have the said houses covered with tiles about the Feast of Pentecost then next ensuing. And in case he should not do the same, he granted that the Mayor, Sheriffs, and bailiffs, of London, should cause the said houses to be roofed with tiles out of the issues of his rents aforesaid.”

These were lawless times and arson flourished. Its punishment was severe. In 1272 there was an incendiary fire which burned most of Norwich. It arose from a quarrel between the burghers and the abbey, and the abbey was burnt by the mob, the fire spreading into the town. Edward I sided with the monks and arriving in the city on September 14th ordered thirty- four of the principal rioters to be drawn about the city by horses till they died, but the woman who was first seen to lay a torch against the abbey gates was burnt alive. 

Small wonder that those suspected of arson often took to the forests and were outlawed. 

Great fires continued by arson, civil war and accident, causing intense misery and suffering. No longer could the sufferer go into the forest and find himself fine trees to rebuild his house. Since the Norman Conquest the forests and all they contained belonged to the king, so  when Carlisle was almost completely burnt out in 1251 we find a gift from the king of a hundred and thirty oaks recorded in the Close Rolls as follows:

“Concerning oaks given to the citizens of Carlisle. It is ordered to Thomas of Muleton, °keeper of the forest of Englewood,’ that he shall give to the king’s citizens of Carlisle from the aforesaid forest a hundred oaks for the timber to be distributed among the poorer persons in the aforesaid city according to their places under the inspection of the Prior, the Archdeacon and the Mayor of Carlisle and the king’s sheriff of the same place, to build up as a gift from the king the houses of the aforesaid poor persons which were lately burnt. He shall also cause to be given to the aforesaid citizens of the king from the same forest thirty oaks to build up again the gate of Richard which was burnt in the same town, as a gift of the king.”

During war and insurrection the wood and thatch houses offered an easy means of driving the inhabitants from their houses, and in 1385 when Richard II invaded Scotland the citizens of Edinburgh removed all the thatch from their roofs and awaited the Duke of Lancaster’s army under the bare rafters. The precaution was of little avail and the city was burned. But the records shew other feelings besides cruelty and indifference, and even the tax collectors would make allowances for those who had lost their possessions by fire. In 1327 the Memoranda Rolls tell of John Bassett of Luffenham in Rutland who comes and seeks attermination for his tax debt at a sum which he can conveniently pay. By an unhappy accident his house, his grain stored in barns and his animals were burnt to his great impover- ishment. The treasurer attermined his debt at fourpence a year on condi- tion he found surety. Four sureties were found and named, and the extract ends %Delivery of John from the Flete prison”. The Close Rolls for 1395 gave instructions

“To the collectors in Norffolk of the tenth and fifteenth granted to the king by the commons in parliament last holden at Westminster. Order, upon petition of the parson and parishioners of Liccham, not to distrain the parishioners for payment of the said tenth or fifteenth, releasing any distress upon them made, So that the money be laid out upon rebuilding the parish church, the belfry and chancel thereof, and the greater part of the houses of that town which are accidentally burnt; as the said petition shews that they have no means so to do, unless the king and other the faithful give them charitable aid. Tested by Edmund, duke of York, guardian of England.”‘

Despite continual losses there is still no record of any organised fire fighting. The bucket chain, axe and fire hook were used by the inhabitants for the common weal as each disaster occurred, though sometimes payment was made for the work done as is shown in a Minister’s Account relating to Tutbury Castle during the time of Edward II (1307-1327) which records the expenditure of eighteen pence “In pay of nine men carrying water to extinguish the woodwork of the high tower which began to burn after the king’s departure.”

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