Women of the plague

In 1665, bubonic plague ravaged London, killing tens of thousands. Scores of Londoners documented the outbreak but few reported on the experiences of women. Here – telling the story of the victims, the survivors and those charged with working with the dead and dying – Rebecca Rideal seeks to redress the balance...

Vienna Plague Hospital, 1679. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The reviled nurses

During the long, grim months of 1665, bubonic plague rampaged through the city of London. As thousands lay sick and dying, someone had to perform the unenviable job of nursing the afflicted through the last moments of their lives. That task invariably fell to women.

When plague broke out, individual parishes were expected to enforce city-wide Plague Orders, which stipulated that two women be appointed to serve as ‘keepers’ (or nurses) to those found to be infected.

These women were usually elderly or widowed parish pensioners living off charity, and could be coerced into the task with threats to their alms, food or pensions. One woman awaiting execution in Poole, Dorset took on the role of nurse in exchange for a reprieve.

Theirs was one of the toughest jobs imaginable, but sympathy and admiration for the plague-nurses was, it appears, in short supply. As one of the few officials allowed entry to infected houses – working cheek by jowl with sufferers – they inspired fear and revulsion among a terrified population. To the physician Nathaniel Hodges they were “wretches [who] out of greediness to plunder the dead, would strangle their patients and charge it to distemper in their throats”. Nurses were also accused of “secretly convey[ing] the pestilent taint from sores of the infected to those who were well”. One nurse was, so the story went, crushed under the weight of goods she had stolen from a plague victim.

And such a reputation was hard to shake. More than 200 years after the Great Plague had claimed its last victim, Florence Nightingale was lamenting the fact that nursing had traditionally been left to “those who were too old, too weak, too drunken, too dirty, too stupid or too bad to do anything else”.

Yet look beyond such rancorous disapproval, and a more nuanced picture of plague-time nursing emerges. When under quarantine during an outbreak in 1636, an Edward Conway specifically asked for “two careful keepers” to be sent to attend to him and his friend. Meanwhile, the nurses’ skills in managing care were such that, towards the end of 1665, a William Godfrey asked that, along with three warders, “a nurse or two” be allowed to continue at the Westminster pest house to keep it secure. The nurse of Mr and Mrs Pearce was valued in such esteem that, when she contracted plague too, she was treated alongside them and “cured”. Samuel Pepys encountered a nurse who – far from being “stupid” – demanded “10s. per weeke” to take in a sick girl.

And, contrary to what Florence Nightingale wrote, those who cared for the sick weren’t exclusively “old”, “weak”, and “drunken”. In fact, women of all classes were well-versed in the secrets of medicine. These included noblewomen like Lady Isham – who advised her nephew to “ware a quill as is filed up with quicksilver… about your neck” – and merchant’s wife Mrs Taswell, who gave her son “a herb called angelica, some aromatics and spanish wine” to prevent him catching plague.

In the 1660s, London was home to at least 60 unlicensed female medical practitioners. It’s unclear if they all remained in the capital when plague broke out, but it is interesting to note that, during the outbreak of 1607, a nurse called Alice Wright did stay in the city and had “many flock to her every day” near Newgate prison.

The corpse inspectors

When the plague-nurses could do no more for an infected patient, it was time for the ‘searchers’ to move in. Searchers were women given the task of inspecting corpses, and reporting, “to the utmost of their knowledge”, what exactly had killed them. The Plague Orders stipulated that each parish elect their own searchers, and that they be women of “honest reputation”.

So why did this task rarely fall to men? It’s probably because women had traditionally taken charge of the deceased – washing, shaving and dressing a person’s corpse ready for burial.

This was the grimmest of tasks. Searchers were given a checklist of symptoms to look out for on the dead, including the presence of swelling around the neck, carbuncles and tokens. They usually worked in pairs, received payment per body, and were required to identify themselves by carrying a red wand.

Tragically, 1665 turned out to be an incredibly busy year for such women. During the Great Plague, searchers recorded no fewer than 68,596 plague deaths. Their raw data was the basis of the Bills of Mortality that, in turn, provided the only graspable way for contemporaries to monitor the progress of plague in the city. To this day, the Bills of Mortality form the bedrock of any study of early modern plague in London.

This wasn’t a new vocation. Women had examined the plague dead since at least the 16th century – we know, from Richelle Munkhoff’s research into plague searchers, that a “Mother Benson” and a “Mother Sewen” were employed to “serche” for plague victims in the London parish of St Margaret Lothbury as early as 1574.

Like nurses, the searchers often inspired revulsion among their fellow Londoners – an antipathy only increased by their ability to condemn an entire household to quarantine. It is perhaps this power that led to the belief that searchers could be easily corrupted. According to Thomas Dekker, writing during the outbreak of 1603, people could give “a little bribe to the searchers” to avoid quarantine. The Royal Society statistician John Graunt – who’s fame is based on the very data the searchers harvested – opined that they were unreliable and at the mercy of “a cup of ale, and the bribe of a two-groat fee”.

But not everyone shared Graunt and Dekker’s misgivings. In fact, searchers could not only be treated with respect, but often held their positions for many years. Munkhoff’s research has revealed that one “Widow Bullen” performed the role of parish searcher for almost 30 years, paired for the majority of her tenure with a searcher named “Widow Hazard”, who served for 33 years.

The first to die

“The masculine sex bears the greatest part.” So wrote the statistician John Graunt of a plague epidemic that swept England in 1603, killing thousands. Graunt was right: the 1603 outbreak did indeed send more men than women to their graves. But when it returned to wreak havoc in London in 1665, the exact opposite was true. The question is: why?

Research by the historian Justin Champion has revealed that 168 more women died during the Great Plague than men. This number might seem immaterial, if it weren’t for the fact that – as Graunt’s words indicate – during the 17th century men usually died more frequently than women. The death ratio during the Great Plague switched from nine females for every 10 males to 10 females for every 9.9 males. What’s more, having examined three parishes in particular, Champion found an early pre-summer peak in female mortality that far outstripped that of men. In other words, women appear to have caught plague earlier. The reasons for this discrepancy are obscure.

It could be that women’s proximity to the home made them more likely to not only contract the illness, but contract it earlier. Alternatively, it could be that the presence of nurses in the homes of the sick skewed the gender ratio, or even that more men fled the capital than women.

The diarist Samuel Pepys and novelist Daniel Defoe (the latter in a fictionalised account) both wrote that women were sent out of the city before men. However, when he travelled to London during the height of plague, the schoolboy William Taswell tells us that he carried messages for households headed by women. Among them was Johanna, his family’s long-time servant and his childhood carer, who, we’re told, contracted plague shortly after his visit.

The resourceful survivors

For all too many Londoners, the Great Plague was a catastrophe with no silver lining. Even those who survived the epidemic had their lives utterly ruined – among them, for example, was Elizabeth Lingar who lost her husband and two daughters and was registered as needing poor relief in 1666.

But some were able to move on. Betty Mitchell, the young daughter of a Westminster haberdasher, lost her fiancé to plague but married his brother. Others made a success of their lives in the post-plague years, with women of means having the best chance of prospering. Anne Maxwell inherited a lucrative printing business following her husband’s death in 1665 and went on to become one of the most prolific printers of the 1660s and 1670s.

Then there are the many thousands of women whose fates have been lost in the mists of time. There are the two women Samuel Pepys bumped into, in the dead of night, weeping as they carried “a man’s coffin between them”; the young girl who, the doctor Nathaniel Hodges tells us, escaped plague-free from quarantine; and the mother who the preacher Thomas Vincent saw carrying the coffin of her child to the New Churchyard. Were these women able to rebuild their lives in the coming decades? We may never know.

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Rebecca Rideal is the author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire (John Murray, 2016).