Marking the Great Fire of London in Hackney

Discover how Hackney's architecture has changed since the 1666 fire

THIS week marks the 350th anniversary of one of the greatest disasters to ever befall London: the Great Fire of 1666.

Starting in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, an area of tightly packed wooden houses near warehouses full of tar, oil and spirits, and fanned by a strong easterly wind, the fire burned from 2 to 5 September, destroying 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, the Guildhall, the Royal Exchange and St Paul’s Cathedral, among other important buildings. Of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants, 70,000 were left homeless.

Of course the fire itself didn’t reach as far north as Hackney, but the many changes made to planning control and building regulations as a result of the destruction, did impact upon local buildings erected in later years. In the 18th century, as Hackney became a desirable out-of-town place to live, new houses were erected to meet the demand for both smart villas and formal terraces.

Various laws were passed between 1667 and 1772, gradually tightening control of how new homes should be built, which was consolidated in the Building Act of 1774. This aimed to standardise construction and quality, making buildings as fire proof as possible, and was so strict that it became known as ‘The Black Act’.

Its rules led to the development of what we now think of as the typical Georgian town house, many examples of which can still be seen in the Hackney area.

The first changes came in the London Building Act of 1667, which introduced the role of surveyors to enforce its regulations. It stated that timber frames were now forbidden and all houses had to be built in brick or stone apart from shop fronts, doors, window frames and joists, the latter of which had to be hidden behind brickwork for safety.

The size of a building had to be in relation to the street in which it stood – no huge houses in tiny streets – and the streets themselves had to be wide enough to act as a fire break, preventing flames from leaping from one side to the other.

Later legislation outlawed timber cornices and stipulated that brick parapets had to rise 30 inches above the garret floor level, which led to the development of low M-shaped roofs with their ridges running parallel to the front of houses instead of the sides. Windows, instead of being flush with the brickwork, had to have sills of at least four inches – the thickness of one brick – to set themback from the facade.

The 1774 Act went further, requiring that much of the surrounding woodwork of windows be recessed into the brickwork itself, effectively hiding part of the frame.

Houses designed for better-off families would have steps up to the front door and an open space – the ‘area’ – in front with steps down to the basement for deliveries and accessby servants.

Sometimes terraces fronted onto a central communal garden, creating the London square, a unique and defining feature of the city which still makes a massive contribution to the quality of life in London.

Some of the earliest Georgian survivals in Hackney are on the west side of Clapton Common, where the different groups of houses display a variety of architectural features.

On the west side of Stoke Newington Common is Sanford Terrace, with both three-storey houses with sunken basements andtwo-storey ones with attics and basements.

The frontages of the houses in Sutton Place (pictured above) were washed with soot and the mortar picked out in white to make the bricks appear to be of better quality.

Once you know what to look for, spotting Georgian buildings and the distinctive features that came about because of the Great Fire can become fun whenever you walk down one of Hackney’s older streets. So, keep your eyes peeled and see what you can find…

By Sally England. Hackney Archives looks after Council administrative records and archives dating back to 1700.