How 17th-century London reacted to the Great Plague
When plague struck the English capital in 1665, the rich fled, the economy tottered and 70,000 people were sent to an early grave. As the world battles coronavirus, Vanessa Harding reveals how Londoners reacted to pestilence in the 17th century
January 1665 opened with “a fine hard frost”. Samuel Pepys, a rising young government official, just short of his 32nd birthday, shared a dinner of a good venison pasty and a turkey with his family, and reflected with satisfaction on his good health and increasing wealth and esteem. 1664 had ended “with great joy to me”, “everything else in the state quiet, blessed be God”, apart from preparations for conflict with the Dutch. And even the formal declaration of war in March was welcomed with optimism and a rush of nationalistic pride. An early naval victory, in June 1665, seemed to fulfil all hopes.
But by that time, London knew it was menaced by a growing epidemic: plague deaths were increasing in number and spread. Pepys first mentions rumours of plague at the end of April, and notes seeing houses shut up in Drury Lane on 7 June. Although this was probably the first time he had seen “two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there”, he had no doubt what this “sad sight” meant.
As Pepys and other Londoners watched in horror, plague deaths mounted rapidly, from tens to scores to hundreds to thousands
As Pepys and other Londoners watched in horror, plague deaths mounted rapidly over the summer, from tens to scores to hundreds to thousands, spreading right across London and its suburbs. In the worst week, 12–19 September, more than 7,000 plague deaths were reported, before the epidemic slowly subsided. By the end of the year, more than 70,000 people had died of plague in London and its suburbs, and the city’s economy and society were severely shaken.
- Listen | Vanessa Harding describes the events of the 1665 Great Plague and explains how people at the time sought to cope with the disease
Localised and urban
1665 is known to posterity as the year of the Great Plague because of its magnitude, and because it was the last such outbreak. But it was not the only plague epidemic to hit the capital. Bubonic plague, caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis, had been present in England since the Black Death of 1348–51, when perhaps a third to a half of the nation’s population died, though since then epidemics had become more localised and more urban, rather than nationwide.
London suffered a succession of plague epidemics in the 16th and 17th centuries, of which those of 1563, 1603 and 1625 may have been as severe in relative terms as 1665. More people are known to have died in 1665 than in any other epidemic, because London was by then so much larger, but the overall mortality rate in all four was probably about the same, around a fifth to a quarter of the capital’s population. 1665 is also the best-documented outbreak, thanks to the survival of official records, private letters and diaries, and, not least, Daniel Defoe’s popular novelistic Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722 but drawing on handed-down personal knowledge of the epidemic.
So what do these eyewitness reports tell us about the impact of the plague on the city’s psyche – and what weapons did the authorities employ in an attempt to slow the destructive spread of the outbreak?
Familiarity with plague meant that the reactions of London’s governors were guided by precedent. A key element in the official response to plague in early modern London was the collection of plague mortality data, originally intended for official consumption but evolving by the early 17th century into the weekly Bills of Mortality – summaries of deaths and plague deaths by parish published as broadsides or handbills by the Parish Clerks’ Company. They were compiled from returns from individual parishes, and printed under strict protocols to ensure that information went first to the crown and Privy Council, and to the City of London.
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At its simplest, the justification for collecting the information on a regular basis was to detect the onset of an epidemic – a sustained rise in weekly death totals in the early summer was a pretty good indication – so that those with responsibilities could plan their strategies. The contemporary statistician John Graunt observed in 1662 that people read the weekly bills to see “how the burials increase, or decrease… and withall, in the plague-time, how the sickness increased, or decreased, that so the rich might judge of the necessity of their removall, and tradesmen might conjecture what doings they were like to have in their respective dealings”.
Rising plague mortality triggered the issue of the Plague Orders, a set of regulations for public and private action originally drawn up by the Privy Council in the 16th century, based on continental practice. Their issue set in motion the machinery for confronting and combating the disease and managing its impact. Officials were appointed and instructed. Regulations covered the quarantining of infected persons and houses, and their support. They also addressed burials, the disposal of household goods, the challenge of keeping the environment clean and of getting rid of dangerous or disorderly elements.
Even if the orders were not fully observed – as Pepys documents, both in his observations and through his own behaviour, being often out after the official curfew of 9 o’clock – they provided a framework of expectation and delineated the hierarchy of responsibility. In addition to the Plague Orders, the mayor and aldermen of the City of London meeting through the summer issued a stream of other precepts. These covered everything from the expansion of accommodation at the city’s pest-house (isolation hospital) outside Cripplegate, through to the appointment of physicians and surgeons, and the closure of grammar, dancing and fencing schools, to the provision of further burial space for the dead.
- Read more: Coffee, plague and the Great Fire: the pleasures and perils of living in Restoration London
The worst mortality
The main burden of dealing with plague fell on London’s 130 parish vestries, local committees ordinarily responsible for managing burial and poor relief, and now faced with growing demands on their resources. They were expected to collect information on plague infection, to enforce quarantine by shutting up infected houses, to support quarantined households who could not support themselves, and to find ways of burying the soaring total of bodies.
The vestrymen were leading local residents, but they weren’t the chief actors here. Most of the heavy lifting was done by a wide cast of characters that included the searchers (employed to inspect the sick and the dead and report on causes of death), the parish clerk (who collected and recorded the names of those buried, and sent weekly totals to Parish Clerks’ Hall), and the churchwardens (who kept track of expenditure and distribution). Sextons, corpse-bearers and gravediggers were also key figures in local networks.
These local systems continued to work remarkably well, though under increasing strain as the scale of the epidemic rose and as officials succumbed. The parish of St Giles Cripplegate, scene of some of the worst mortality in the epidemic, lost its sexton and three of the churchwardens. The parish clerk’s wife also died. The smaller St Bride Fleet Street lost two churchwardens, one after another, and the widow of the first was still making up the accounts some months later.
The Plague Orders give us a good idea of official thinking on the likelihood of person-to-person infection, with their insistence on quarantine, restricting assemblies and gatherings of people, curfews and the cleansing of bedding.
However, the spiritual aspect was equally important. In an age when religious belief was virtually universal, and embedded in notions of authority and governance, many saw exceptional events and disasters as evidence of divine intervention, and sought ways to appease and avert judgment. The Plague Orders set out the actions to be taken “for preventing and avoiding of infection of sickness” with the caveat “if it shall so please Almighty God”. Fasts and days of repentance were prescribed as a first measure, and sermons drew on the rich store of biblical texts and precedents. The orders had a moral element as well as a medical one, attacking a range of public gatherings of an ungodly nature, including “disorderly tipling in taverns, alehouses, coffee-houses and cellars… the common sin of this time, and greatest occasion of dispersing the plague”.
The responses of ordinary Londoners to the epidemic were as diverse as London’s population. A handful of individuals left personal writings of some kind, while the flood of popular and more learned publications gives some indication of the appetite for information, advice and remedies. Many of the personal accounts come from educated, professional men: Symon Patrick, rector of St Paul’s Covent Garden; John Allin, nonconformist minister residing in Southwark; Richard Smyth, retired city law-officer and book collector; and Samuel Pepys. There are few contributions from women or working people, but these viewpoints are still quite diverse, from the anxious and deeply serious Allin to the somewhat insouciant Pepys.
There were common concerns, especially over whether to stay or leave. One widely remarked feature of the 17th-century plagues was the alacrity with which the wealthy left the town for country retreats, something that evoked criticism and resentment.
Both Patrick and Smyth cited the classic tripartite advice of the physicians in time of plague leave quickly, go a long way off, return slowly (“better than three apothecaries’ shops well stocked”, according to one) – though both in fact remained. Patrick, who had no wife or family in London, felt obliged to stay for his ministry, since “here is no body to performe any duties here but myself only”. Smyth examined the arguments for and against, drawing on the works in his extensive library, but also seems to have concluded that he should stay. Pepys sent his wife and household out of town, but remained himself for most of the time. However, both Pepys and Allin noted the premature return of the absentees, who ironically “mett with what they fled from”: “divers fresh houses, since the return of fresh persons hither, visited [infected by the plague]”.
Londoners anxiously awaited, digested and discussed the weekly Bill of Mortality, charting the rise and eventual decline of the epidemic. Pepys comments frequently on the weekly totals: “in great trouble to see the bill this week rise so high” (10 August); “8,252 dead in all, and of them, 6,878 of the plague which is a most dreadfull Number” (7 September); “Great joy we have in the weekly bill, it being come to 544 in all, and but 333 of the plague” (30 November).
Allin and Patrick quoted the weekly total in their letters to country correspondents, often adding information on local numbers. Rumour abounded, and stories circulated of multiple deaths – “many whole familyes of 7, 8, 9, 10, 18 in a family totally swept away” – and sudden sickness – a minister “preached Sunday sennight [a week] before, but was dead with his wife and three children by Thursday night”. Correspondents asked anxiously about friends and colleagues, and for confirmation of reports of death or survival.
Five ways in which our 17th-century ancestors waged war on pestilence
1. Consign yourself to quarantine
Houses in which anyone fell sick of plague were ordered to be shut up, marked with a red cross and “Lord Have Mercy Upon Us”, and watched so that no one entered or left for four weeks, to prevent the spread of infection. This certainly happened, but was much resisted, and was hard to enforce; contemporary sources suggest that, by the later weeks of the epidemic, enforcement was failing. It remains unclear whether quarantine really helped to contain the disease.
2. Steer clear of filth and dung
Orders that streets be kept clean, rubbish removed and laystalls (dungheaps) placed at a distance from habitation reflected the belief that plague was generated by corrupt airs or ‘miasma’ arising from dung and filth. The ban on keeping “Hogs, dogs [both shown above in a woodcut] or cats, or tame pigeons, or conies” in the city, and the orders that wandering pigs were to be impounded and stray dogs killed, probably arose from the same association of foul smells with sickness.
3. Fumigate your clothes
It was believed that infection could be carried in textiles, and second-hand clothes dealers were strictly forbidden to buy or sell goods from infected houses. The bedding, clothing and hangings of the sick were to be “well aired with fire, and such perfumes as are requisite”, before being used again. If human ectoparasites played a role in spreading the disease, as seems likely, this ruling could have had some useful effect.
4. Bury the dead at night
The Plague Orders proscribed funeral processions, and mandated burial of the plague dead at night, to avoid public gatherings and perhaps to reduce the impact on morale. By August, however, mortality was so high that the nights weren’t long enough to bury all the dead. Pepys came across well-attended burials in daylight, to his wonder and fear. Though burial in city churches and churchyards was permitted, mortality was such that thousands were buried in the public graveyards near Bethlem Hospital and at Bunhill Fields, or in new and unconsecrated grounds.
5. Always take the moral high ground
Assemblies of any kind, potentially allowing the infected and the well to mingle, were restricted, but those where the object was immoral or ungodly, such as “playes, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler-play”, were to be “severely punished”. Moral and medical concerns likewise combined in the attack on “the multitude of rogues and wandering beggers that swarm in every place about the city”, a moral affront to orderly society as well as “a great cause of the spreading of the Infection”.
Profiting from death
The Bills of Mortality were an official publication, but there was evidently demand for a range of cheap commercial publications, too, and a marketing opportunity for remedies and medicaments. Commemorative or composite ‘bills’, brought out by a number of independent printers during the epidemic, combined text, images and statistics, reminding Londoners of other historic or more recent plagues, proffering remedies or prayers, even providing them with blanks to fill in the weekly death totals.
Ministers published sermons and “consolatory discourses” for their flocks. Doctors of all kinds published broadsides and pamphlets, interspersing advice, recipes and advertisements for proprietary waters, tinctures, ointments and fumes. The popularity of such tracts indicates a demand for information, but no consistency of approach: Londoners embraced a variety of medical theories, from traditional Galenism (the system of medicine that included the theory of the four humours) to more modern ‘Chymicall’ approaches, and even astrological medicine (in which celestial bodies were thought to rule over the human body).
One minister noted that many Londoners attempted to ward off plague by wearing amulets 'made of the poison of the toad'
John Allin, who practised medicine as well as acting as a minister, keenly pursued a substance made from algae that he believed to have healing properties, but also noted the popularity of amulets “made of the poison of the toad”. Symon Patrick was directed by his physician Dr Micklethwaite to mix and drink “London treacle and lady Allen’s water”; however, “I bought both presently, but forgat still to mix them: only now and then I take a little treacle”. ‘London treacle’ was a compound of multiple substances, obtainable from apothecaries rather than made at home. It seems to have been a popular preventative or remedy against plague, recurring in numerous publications, along with many different ‘plague waters’ or distillations.
Careful diet was another common prescription, with one physician advising abstention from “the boiled herbs of colliflowers, cabbage, coleworts, spinage, and beets”. Another recommended readers “overfill not your bodies with meate which is hard of disgesture, for it breeds ill humors”.
For all the remedies that Londoners ingested, and foods they avoided, the impact of the plague on their city was immense. London’s parish registers tell hundreds of short stories of the epidemic, recording the successive deaths of members of the same family, and the decimation of local communities. Symon Patrick and John Allin each listed the deaths of clerical colleagues; Allin also recorded that “above seven score drs, apothecarys, and surgeons are dead of this distemper in and about ye City since this visitation”. Richard Smyth listed more than a hundred individuals whom he knew, or knew of, who died in the epidemic.
For many of those who survived, the huge mortality formed an occasion for reflection and consideration, with even Samuel Pepys admitting that “we have gone through great melancholy because of the great plague”. But although mortality dwindled during the following months, and business and social life began to recover, Londoners had yet to face another cataclysm, less deadly but perhaps even more disruptive: the fire that broke out on 2 September 1666.
Vanessa Harding is professor of London history at Birkbeck, University of London
You can listen to eyewitness accounts of the Great Plague, including from Samuel Pepys, on BBC World Service’s Witness History
This article was first published in the June 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine