Two of the greatest disasters in London’s history both occurred in the 1660s: plague and fire struck the city in successive years. Neither was a novelty. The bubonic plague was endemic – there were outbreaks in 1603 and 1625 that killed tens of thousands – but neither was as bad as the Great Plague of 1665. By some estimates it caused the deaths of a quarter of London’s population. Fire, meanwhile, was a permanent danger in a 17th-century city but it is difficult to exaggerate the damage caused by the Great Fire. “In three days the most flourishing city in the world is a ruinous heap,” one official wrote, and he was right. More than 13,000 houses were gone and so too were 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral, 44 Livery Company halls and three of the city gates. Almost miraculously there was only a handful of deaths recorded – less than 10 according to most authorities.
If you were a Londoner in the 17th century, however, death was an ever-present possibility. All sorts of things could carry you off. Examination of just one of the weekly ‘bills of mortality’, the official death statistics of the day, for 1665 is revealing. Given the year it is no surprise that by far the greatest number of fatalities – more than 7,000 – were caused by the plague. Other diseases, however, also took their toll. Just over 100 deaths were ascribed to ‘spotted fever’; 134 to ‘consumption’; 64 to ‘convulsion’ and 51 to ‘griping in the guts’. Three unfortunates were so troubled by ‘wind’ that it proved fatal to them. Some 43 women died in childbirth. In addition there were the one-off accidents: one man was “burnt in his bed by a candle at St Giles Cripplegate”; another was “killed by a fall from the belfry at All-Hallows-the-Great”.
Disease in 17th-century London
Plague was only the scariest of an assortment of diseases that might befall you. Smallpox was prevalent, killing thousands and disfiguring many more. The unmistakable ‘pockmarks’, signs that a person had survived the disease, would have been visible on the faces of a remarkably high proportion of London’s citizens, perhaps as many as half. Tuberculosis was another prolific killer, its symptoms exacerbated by the smoke and poor air of the city. It is easy to forget just how many of the medical advances we take for granted today were made in the past 150 years. Three-and-a-half centuries ago physicians were largely helpless in the face of most illnesses. It is little wonder, then, that people resorted to remedies and ‘cures’ that now seem bizarre. The London Pharmacopoeia, or list of drugs, issued by the College of Physicians in 1618 and reprinted several times later in the century, suggested such dubious ingredients for its prescriptions as dog excrement, moss from a recently buried skull and the saliva of a fasting man.
Smog in 17th-century London
The city itself was not a healthy place. Pollution of all kinds was ever present. Smog was not just a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. The burning of sea-coal in domestic fires meant that 17th-century London was as foul-smelling and filled with sulphurous smoke as the Victorian city. John Evelyn claimed that nearly half the deaths in the city were caused by it and that “the inhabitants are never free from coughs and importunate rheumatisms, spitting of impostumated and corrupt matter”.
The city streets were mostly narrow, packed and filthy. A 1662 Act of Parliament admitted that “the common highways leading unto and from the cities of London and Westminster” were “miry and foul” and were thus “noisome, dangerous and inconvenient to the inhabitants”. Drainage was poor – in some areas non-existent – and faeces, both human and animal, befouled the roads. The dangers of being deluged by filth and rubbish thrown from windows were such that the wise pedestrian strove to walk under the projecting upper storeys of the houses. Jostling for the best positions next to the walls could lead to fights and even, on occasions, deaths.
Crime in 17th-century London
The streets were also ill-lit and dark, perfect for footpads and robbers. Although their heyday was in the following century, highwaymen (muggers) had begun to demand that travellers on the edges of the city should stand and deliver. One of the most famous was Claude Duval, who began his career as a ‘gentleman of the road’ in 1666. Many of the stories told of Duval are later inventions by writers with a romantic imagination, but it may well be true that he once invited the wife of one of his victims to dance a coranto with him on the roadside and then charged her husband £100 for the entertainment the dancing had provided. He was captured in January 1670, drunk, in a pub called the Hole-in-the-Wall in Chandos Street, found guilty of robbery and, despite attempts to persuade the king to pardon him, was hanged at Tyburn.
The highwayman John Cottingham robbing a mail wagon, c1680. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Duval was an aristocrat of crime. More typical were the petty pickpockets who stole purses and handkerchiefs or the housebreakers who ran off with bed linen, clothes and anything else they could carry. Punishment for such crimes was draconian. In theory at least, if the value of stolen goods exceeded 12 pence, theft was punishable by death. In practice, many judges and magistrates found reasons to avoid the letter of the law but plenty of people – men, women and even children – were condemned to “dancing on air” at Tyburn largely because their poverty and desperation had driven them to theft.
Unexpected pleasures in 17th-century London
And yet, despite all the perils of 17th-century London, life in the great city was not all gloom and doom. Its citizens found much to amuse and delight them. Pleasures that had been banned under Cromwell’s Commonwealth returned with Charles II’s restoration. John Aubrey reported that “Maypoles which in the late hypocritical times ‘twas forbidden to set up now were set up in every cross-way” and “the tallest maypole ever seen” was erected in the Strand. The late hypocritical times had, of course, not been kind to the theatre but the stage enjoyed a renaissance under Charles. The king loved plays in general and, in particular, some of the actresses who appeared in them. (Nell Gwynne famously began her career selling oranges to theatregoers, progressed to roles in comedies and ended up in the royal bed. And she was not the only actress to catch the king’s eye.) A new theatre was built in Drury Lane and another was created in Lincoln’s Inn Fields by converting an old tennis court.
Nell Gwynne, c1670. (Photo by Edward Gooch/Getty Images)
Music was another source of entertainment, from street musicians and strolling ballad-singers to makeshift concerts at gatherings of friends. The diarist Samuel Pepys was passionately fond of music, which he called “the thing of the world I love most”. He played the flageolet, a kind of early flute, and was possessed of a fine singing voice. Even he, however, drew the line at the bagpipes which, he reckoned, produced “mighty barbarous music”. He paid for his wife to take dancing lessons, although he grew very jealous of Mr Pembleton, the dancing master, who was, he decided, becoming far too friendly with his pupil. Eventually, he himself also took lessons from Pembleton and was soon reporting merry evenings when the three of them “danced three or four country dances”.
Cruel entertainment in 17th-century London
Cruder and crueller entertainments than country dancing could be found in Southwark, the centre of the theatrical world in Shakespeare’s time and also home to less attractive pursuits. Bear-baiting, in which a hobbled and occasionally blind bear was set upon by a pack of dogs, was enjoyed by many. So too was bull-baiting. In his diary entry for 14 August 1666, Pepys records his visit to the Bear Garden with his wife and a friend where they saw “some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs”. The diarist did have the grace to admit that it was “a very rude and nasty pleasure”. Four years later another great diarist of the period, John Evelyn, “went with some friends to the Bear Garden where was cock-fighting, dog-fighting, bear and bull-baiting, it being a famous day for all these butcherly sports”. While he was there, “one of the bulls tossed a dog full into a lady’s lap as she sat in one of the boxes”.
Bear Garden, Southwark, London, after its third rebuilding, 1648. By this time plays and prize-fighting had been added to the original entertainment of bear-baiting. Woodcut based on a detail in the Bohemian etcher and engraver Wenceslaus Hollar’s view of London. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Perhaps the lady was not too bothered. After all, this was an age in which the average Londoner necessarily had a strong stomach. Executions provided a form of public theatre, as they were to do for nearly 200 years to come. In the years after Charles II’s restoration, those who had condemned his father to death were pursued relentlessly by the regime. Many were executed and the heads of some of these regicides were stuck on top of the city gates, often remaining there for years. Oliver Cromwell was posthumously disinterred from his supposedly final resting place in Westminster Abbey and his skull placed on a spike above Westminster Hall, where it stayed for more than 20 years. Many citizens and visitors to the city flocked to see it.
More edifying excursions could be made to outlying villages like Islington and Highgate, to New Spring Gardens (later Vauxhall Gardens) south of the river and to the royal parks. For those with an inquisitive mind, cabinets of curiosities were the museums of the day. One, advertised as open for business in the Strand in June 1661, offered the sight of “an entire Egyptian mummy with all the hieroglyphics”. The collection of the botanist John Tradescant included a deerskin cloak that had once supposedly belonged to the Native American chieftain Powhatan, father of Pocahontas, and which is now in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Another magnet for visitors was the royal menagerie, housed in the Tower of London, which was home to the city’s more exotic animals. Pepys took a party of women and children there in May 1662 and “showed them the lions”.
Food and drink in 17th-century London
For those who could afford it, food was rich and plentiful. One meal for 12 persons from 1663 consisted of “a fricassee of rabbits and chicken, a leg of mutton boiled, three carps in a dish, a great dish of a side of lamb, a dish of roasted pigeons, a dish of four lobsters, three tarts, a most rare lamprey pie, and a dish of anchovies”. Vegetables are not mentioned, either because they were not on the table at all or because they were considered too ordinary to describe. The poor, of course, could only dream of dining so lavishly. They would have rarely eaten meat at all, although oysters, today considered rather upmarket, were then so plentiful that they were a staple food for Londoners of all classes.
In pre-refrigeration days, it was difficult to keep food fresh. Pepys was mortified when he invited a colleague to dinner, and a sturgeon was brought to the table, “upon which I saw very many little worms creeping”.
New drinks had recently arrived in town. Hot chocolate came from the New World via Spain, but the most successful novelty was coffee. The first coffeehouse in London was opened in an alley off Cornhill in 1652 by a Greek man named Pasqua Rosee (who was originally from Sicily and had lived in Smyrna). Ten years later there were nearly 100 of them. They were used almost exclusively by men.
Men enjoying a drink and a chat in a coffee shop, 1674. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
One of the unfortunate consequences of the fashion for this “newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor”, according to The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, a pamphlet published in 1674, was the sapping of the nation’s virility. “Our gallants,” the pamphlet’s writer claimed, “are become mere cock-sparrows” who “are not able to stand to it, and in the very first charge fall down flat before us.” Better, perhaps, to stick to more traditional drinks like beer and ale, which were consumed at home and in the hundreds of taverns that catered to the city’s thirsty population.
The Londoners of the 1660s had to face crises unmatched in the city’s history until the Second World War. They struggled to survive in a dangerous world, one in which life was cheap and death could be just around the corner, but they did so with the energy and capacity for enjoyment for which the inhabitants of this great city have always been known.
Nick Rennison is the author of The Book of London Lists (Canongate, 2006) and co-editor, with Travis Elborough, of A London Year (Frances Lincoln, 2013)