London's Seen Much Worse Than Coronavirus: Remembering The Great Plague Of 1665

David Fathers
By David Fathers Last edited 6 months ago
London's Seen Much Worse Than Coronavirus: Remembering The Great Plague Of 1665
"Bring Out Your Dead" A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners. Image: Wellcome in Creative Commons

Coronavirus is not the first deadly infection to strike London. Over the centuries there have been numerous, and in January 1665, an outbreak of what would become known as the Great Plague erupted in St Giles-in-the-Field. The district was then a small village west of the City. Despite the area's former impoverished status having improved over the past several hundred years, conditions were still rife for an epidemic.

The Black Death

London was no stranger to a plague killing thousands of the populace. In 1348, an epidemic, later known as the Black Death, reached the capital, having swept rapidly across Europe. The infection was carried by flea infested black rats, who had arrived on boats bringing cotton and fabrics into the country. Humans, once within proximity of the rats, were bitten by the fleas and the bacteria was transferred into the lymphatic system, which in turn caused swellings called buboes (hence bubonic plague). Several key organs became infected and patients usually died within a few days. The plague is estimated to have wiped out between 40 and 60% of the capital's population that year. Such plagues would strike London numerous times over the next two centuries.

Insanitary conditions

The population of London, by 1660, had grown to around 380,000. And yet despite all the previous epidemics, very little had been done to improve the standards of hygiene or health. Household detritus, carcasses and sewage were often simply thrown into the streets and nearby streams. There was no real organised method of waste disposal and as a consequence disease and infection were rife. The houses were usually small, often damp and poorly ventilated, and the streets were narrow.

From Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year. Image: Public domain

Bill of mortality

Each parish was obliged to report the numbers of dead each week. These were known as 'bills of mortality' but they were often inaccurate, as some deaths were not being recorded; those of Jewish, Quaker and non-conformist religions were not entered into the bills at all. By the end of May 1665, with 14 new deaths recorded in one week, the Mayor of London ordered the streets to be cleared of dirt and sewage. By the end of June this figure had risen to 186 in a single week and a mass exodus of the capital began. Up to 30,000 people evacuated the City in July. Many of the rich had country homes to retreat to. Those less fortunate simply camped in fields and heaths beyond the infected zones.

It was believed at the time that the bubonic plague was airborne and so many people, including children, began smoking tobacco to keep the pestilence away. Sea-coal fires were lit at every twelfth door for the same reason. Public assemblies were banned and beggars kept out of the City. Cats and dogs were killed as it was thought they might carry the infection. Ironically, these animals could have assisted in reducing the rat population.

Houses of the infected were locked up, with inhabitants left inside for 40 days, and marked with a red cross on the door. Relatives of the dead were not allowed to attend funerals for fear of infection. Bodies were removed to burial sites on carts and unceremoniously dumped into mass graves.

Scenes in London during the plague of 1665. facsimile reproduction from a pictorial broadside of 1665-6. Image: Wellcome in Creative Commons

The final tally

By September, over 8,000 deaths per week had been reported. As the temperature dropped in October, so did the number of deaths. Over the entire year it is believed that 100,000 had died of the plague. By January 1666 the weekly bills of mortality had dropped to under 100. The return of Charles II to London with his entourage encouraged many other Londoners to do likewise. Trade and the economy began to pick up again.

1. Charterhouse Square

Beneath the trees and grass of Charterhouse Square is a Black Death burial ground. It was created as an extension to St Bartholomew churchyard to the south, to cope with the huge numbers of deaths that occurred during the 1348 plague.

2. Finsbury Square

This area, north of the City wall was, in 1665, known as Finsbury Fields. A hastily prepared unconsecrated plague pit was constructed in the vicinity.

3. Bedlam burial ground

A new churchyard was established in 1569, as an extension to the Bethlehem (Bedlam) Hospital. With over 5,000 bodies laid to rest there, it was one of the most used burial sites in the City. During the Crossrail excavations, close to Liverpool Street station, in 2016, a gravestone was discovered belonging to a Mary Godfree, a child from nearby Cripplegate, who had died at the height of the plague in September 1665. Even during the crisis some people were still getting a decent burial.

4. Houndsditch

This 1665 plague pit reportedly contained at least 1,000 bodies and was created just beyond the city boundaries off Bishopsgate.

5. Greene Dragon tavern

Quack doctors and dubious remedies proliferated during the period of the plague. Blood-letting to balance the 'humors' was still practised. The Green Dragon tavern (no longer standing) supplied, at a price of 12 pence per ounce, 'an excellent electuary and drink for the prevention and cure of the plague by order and appointment of his Majesty's College of Physicians'. The tavern stood close to the site of the Great Water Conduit.

6 The silent Thames

The River Thames, at the Pool of London, was reported to be almost silent during the epidemic. Many tradesmen had left London and shipping attempting to enter the City was placed in quarantine at Canvey Island to check no one was carrying plague. It is doubtful if any sailors wanted to enter London at this pestilent time.

This is an abridged chapter taken from the book Bloody London by David Fathers. Published by Bloomsbury Conway on 2 April 2020. £9.99. He can be followed @TheTilbury

All maps and illustrations © David Fathers.

Last Updated 22 March 2020