The Great Plague 1665
The Great Plague 1665
Back in March 2020 I was infected with Covid-19. I wrote a trilogy of articles following my journey through the remainder of that year and into early 2021.
It was during the second 'lockdown' that I purchased a book on the Bubonic Plague of 1664-1665. Almost immediately I began to notice similarities between the people of those desperate years and the people of the 'modern' day.
The plague had already been circulating the previous year across Europe and further afield in Turkey and the Levant. Trade and the movement of people across the globe meant it was only a matter of time before it reached our shores.
Rumours abounded, but without the technology of today, most of the reports were by word of mouth or by individual correspondence. The Government knew but were keeping it quiet for the time being. Discussions were had on how to prevent it from coming over to England.
In London, a great trading hub of the time, the Plague was starting to circulate. Efforts were made to keep it quiet.
It first appeared in September 1664 with two men dying in the area around Drury Lane. The family tried to hide the fact but the local gossip soon reached the powers-that-be. At first the number of cases were fairly low and the recording of deaths, known as the bills of mortality, showed few succumbing to the plague. However, these figures were questioned and better recording followed. It was said that a 'Frenchman', who had lived near an infected house, had moved for fear of catching the plague only to find that he himself was infected.
The temperate weather of spring 1665 saw a lull in the spread but unfortunately it had not gone away. By June with the weather warming it was starting to spread beyond the local area.
Up to this point the City had been free from the Plague with no recording of its presence. Some began to conceal symptoms for fear of being shunned by their neighbours. It was threatened, but not practised, that the authorities would shut up their houses. Isolation was not far away.
The nobility and the gentry began, with their households, to flee out of town. Those who could, including most doctors, lawyers and merchants, also fled the city. Charles II and his courtiers left in July for Hampton Court and then moved on to Oxford. Parliament was postponed and had to sit in October at Oxford. Travel permits or certificates of health were issued to allow this movement.
After a few weeks it was rumoured that the Government had ordered ‘turnpikes and barriers on the road to prevent people from travelling, and that the towns on the road would not suffer people from London to pass for fear of bringing the infection along with them'.
By mid-July the Plague was still very much in the highly populated outer parishes housing the poor. Gradually it began to move within the City and further afield. 'Sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and, as we saw it apparently coming on, so everyone looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger.'
The physicians of the day fought with the tools at hand. If they caught an infected person early enough then there was a chance of survival. The majority of the time it was already too late to make a difference to the outcome.
About June the Lord Mayor and the Court of Aldermen began planning to regulate the City. On the 1st of July the Lord Mayor's office published the following:
ORDERS Conceived and published by the Lord MAJOR and Aldermen of the City of London, concerning the infection of the Plague.
Printed by James Flesher, Printer to the Honourable City of LONDON.
WHereas in the first Year of the Reign of our late Sovereign King James of
happy memory, an Act was made for the charitable relief and ordering of
Persons infected with the Plague: whereby Authority was given to Justices of Peace, Majors, Bayliffs, and other Head-Officers to appoint within their several Limits Examiners, Searchers, Watchmen, Keepers, and Buriers for the Persons and Places infected, and to minister unto them Oaths for the performance of their Offices. And the same Statute did also authorize the giving of other Directions, as unto them for the present necessity should seem good in their discretions. It is now upon special consideration thought very expedient for preventing and avoiding of infection of Sickness (if it shall so please Almighty God) that these Officers following be appointed, and these Orders hereafter duly observed.
Other orders were published within:
Orders concerning infected Houses, and Persons sick of the Plague.
Orders for cleansing and keeping of the Streets sweet.
Orders concerning loose Persons and idle Assemblies.
Some of the orders are still pertinent today:
THE Master of every House, as soon as any one in his House complaineth, either of Botch, or Purple, or Swelling in any part of his body, or falleth otherwise dangerously sick, without apparent cause of some other Disease, shall give knowledge thereof to the Examiner of Health within two hours after the said sign shall appear.
IF any person shall have visited any man, known to be Infected of the Plague, or entred willingly into any known Infected House, being not allowed: the House wherein he inhabiteth, shall be shut up for certain daies by the Examiners direction.
THat all Playes, Bear-baitings, Games, Singing of Ballads, Buckler-play, or such like causes of Assemblies of people, be utterly prohibited, and the parties offending, severely punished by every Alderman in his Ward.
THat all publick Feasting, and particularly by the Companies of this City; and
Dinners at Taverns, Alehouses, and other places of common entertainment be
forborn till further order and allowance; and that the money thereby spared,
be preserved and imployed for the benefit and relief of the poor visited with the infection.
Watchmen locked and kept guard over infected houses. Parish officials provided food. Searchers looked for dead bodies and at night moved them to plague pits for burial.
The Plague continued to spread. Not only within London but beyond into the countryside and mainly the trading towns. Thousands were now dying each day. It is estimated that 7,165 Londoners died in one week. Whole families succumbed to this deadly disease. Great care was taken to isolate households but the inevitable happened with the movement of people around the country.
The plague was caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which is usually transmitted through the bite of a flea.
It affected individuals in different ways. Some were 'immediately overwhelmed with it.....violent fevers, vomitings, insufferable headaches, pains in the back, and so up to ravings and ragings with those pains.....swellings and tumours in the neck or groin'. Others 'fell into swooning, and faintings, and death without pain.’
Worse was the pneumonic plague, this attacked the lungs and spread to other people through coughing and sneezing, and septicaemic plague, which occurred when the bacteria entered the blood. Few cases survived, there was little hope.
City records indicate that some 68,596 people died during the epidemic, though the actual number of deaths is suspected to have exceeded 100,000 out of a total population estimated at 460,000.
All trade with London and other plague towns was stopped. The Council of Scotland declared that the border with England would be closed. There were to be no fairs or trade with other countries. Many people were to lose their jobs.
The bills of mortality show that in December 1665 the mortality rate fell suddenly. Deaths began to wane and continued down through the winter and into early 1666. From London the disease had spread widely over the country, but from 1667 on there was no epidemic of plague in any part of England.
It has been suggested that the disappearance of plague from London was the Great Fire in September 1666. It is more likely that effective quarantine was a major factor.
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe.
Orders Conceived and published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, concerning the infection of the Plague. Printed by James Flesher, Printer to the Honourable City of London.
Bill of Mortality. Published by the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks in London.