History Hunters

Death Stalks the Streets of London

Fran Smith

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Carving at the base of Wren's monument. (Diana Briscoe)

London in 1665 was a thriving, bustling city of about half a million people. It is difficult to be precise as there was no census and many people moved to London searching for work. Most of the people lived within the old medieval city walls, and along the river towards Westminster. The wooden houses were overcrowded and usually contained several families, servants and numerous lodgers. There was very little public hygiene, no lavatories in ordinary houses, people drank the river water and then emptied their rubbish into the same river. Most Londoners, including children, drank beer as it was safer than water!

Yes, there had been plagues before, but the scale of the plague of 1665 was shocking. The cause of the plague was not understood. People thought that it was carried in the air or spread by animals. Big fires were lit to ‘purify’ the air and cats and dogs were killed in an attempt to stop the disease. In fact, the plague was caused by fleas which lived on the bodies of black rats. Of course, there were thousands of rats living in the houses and feeding on the rubbish in the streets and each rat could carry hundreds of fleas! The fleas particularly thrived in warm conditions such as piles of clothes and containers of flour and on humans!

The fleas bit humans and these bites became enflamed, causing high fever and extremely painful swelling of the lymph nodes, found especially in the armpit and groin areas. These swollen lymph nodes became black lumps and were called ‘buboes’. Sometimes, the victims became delirious, which was frightening for their families and neighbours.

Apothecaries (pharmacists) recommended various potions to protect against and cure the symptoms of the plague. These included holding a chicken’s bottom against the buboes, drinking a vile concoction called London Treacle, dowsing yourself in vinegar, drinking wine, leaving peeled onions around the house, chewing tobacco and carrying a piece of gold in your mouth! Of course, the apothecaries charged a lot of money for these ‘remedies’ and it was said that the only people that profited from the plague were the apothecaries and coffin makers! Some apothecaries visited 40-60 households each day but many apothecaries and their families died too.

Houses where plague was found were sealed up and marked with a red cross on the door. The inhabitants of the marked houses were not allowed outside. Watchers were employed to ensure that they did not go out but also to bring food and ‘medicine’ to the people inside. Often the watchers were also thieves and took anything of value from the house, including clothes and flour…and so the plague was spread. Each night, carts were wheeled round the city by searchers and there were shouts of ’Bring out your dead’. The bodies were taken to communal burial pits and buried at night. There were plague pits at Bunhill Fields and at Aldgate, as well as other places outside the city walls. Formal funerals were banned in case infection spread. Taverns and theatres were closed, the government was moved outside the city and wealthier Londoners chose to leave with all their possessions. The clergy had to list all the information about deaths in their parishes in ‘Bills of Mortality’ which were printed and issued each Thursday and these documents provide a fascinating insight into life and death in the city. However, many plague deaths were concealed or misreported, as householders tried to avoid the stigma of having their house and all its occupants sealed up, only to die of the disease or starvation.

Both internal and external trade declined sharply. London’s port handled 80% of all imports and exports for the whole country. Incoming ships were halted at quarantine stations for between 20 and 40 days. Ships leaving the city were also held at similar quarantine stations at their ports of destination, especially when news of London’s plague reached other countries in Europe. Many seamen, craftsmen and trades people connected with shipping became unemployed and, along with their extended families, were plunged in to poverty.

In mid June 1665 when the plague was beginning to take hold, a merchant remarked that ‘if the sicknesse increases we shall have nothing to doe, for it will put a stopp to all businesse’. The sale of luxury goods ceased as people did not want to buy anything except essentials. Country people were reluctant to come to London with fresh produce. Markets declined and became dangerous places to visit. Many tradesmen fled the city and shops closed. Samuel Pepys remarked that two thirds of the shops near his house had closed and grass was growing in the streets. Healthy people became scared of going in to shops in case there were plague victims inside. Shopping was hazardous!

As the wealthier Londoners moved away and the shops closed, there was a shortage of money as well as food. The government could not collect taxes as many of the tax collectors had either died or fled to the countryside, and those that survived did not want to enter the city.

Just have a look at the number of reported plague deaths in London in August 1665:

  • At the end of the first week, there were 2817 deaths
  • At the end of the second week, there were 3880 deaths
  • At the end of the third week, there were 4237 deaths
  • At the end of the fourth week, there were 6102 deaths.
  • And in the third week of September, the plague reached its peak with 7165 deaths.
  • 113 parishes were affected with Whitechapel and Southwark particularly hard hit. London was becoming like a ghost town!

At the end of 1665, the annual Bill of Mortality showed that 68 596 people had died of the plague. Many historians now think that the number of plague victims was closer to 100,000 ~ about a fifth of the population.

London was just beginning to recover from the disruptive effects of the disease, when a fire started in the early hours of the morning of 2 September 1666…

But that’s another story!

References:

Books

Ashley. M. 1965. England in the Seventeenth Century. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Bedoyere. G. de la (ed). 1997. Particular Friends: The Correspondence of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. Woodbridge: Boydell Press

Defoe. D. 2001. A Journal of the Plague Year. New York: Dover Thrift

Evelyn. J. 1959. The Diary of John Evelyn. London: Oxford University Press

Pepys. S. 1970. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. London: Bell & Hyman

Porter. S. 2009. The Great Plague. Stroud: Amberley

Withington. S. 2010. London’s Disasters. Stroud: The History Press

Places

Museum of London, Guildhall Library, Bunhill Fields, Spitalfields, All Hallows Church by the Tower, The Monument

Internet Resources

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/greatfire [5 Sept 2010]
http://www.history.ac.uk/cmh/epichamp [25 Aug 2010]
http://www.localhistories.org/stuart [25 Aug 2010]
http://www.localhistories.org/london17thcentury [17 Aug 2010]
http://www.channel4.com/history [17 Aug 2010]

History Hunters’ photos from Monument: