Wednesday 9 April 2008

21st September 2007 - The Great Plague

I decided to take some air at lunch time today and go on one of the free guided walks that they do in Holborn every Friday lunchtime. Unfortunately I missed last weeks "Thespians" which would have been fun but todays was very interesting - The Great Plague.

The great plague of 1665 started in a house on Drury Lane close to the junction with Long Acre, in late November/early December 1664 when two Frenchman died. Soon more deaths happened, and an Apothecary operated from a public house The White Hart (still on the same site) looking after as many people as he could. He actually wrote a treatise on the plague in 1666 which was the first ever observation, medically speaking, on the plague. Victims of the illness were boarded up in their homes, and tough luck on anyone not yet infected in the building - they were boarded up too! A large red cross was painted on the door.

The plague is spread by black rats (Rattus Rattus) - their fleas carry the virus from the rats to humans but people had no idea of the connection until the 1890s. At the time the government believed that cats and dogs were to blame, so set about killing 200,000 cats and 40,000 dogs. As cats and dogs are the natural predators of rats this was not the wisest move and consequently the plague spread to the centre of the city. At it's peak in September 1665, 26,000 died in that one month, and yet by October there was only 1000 deaths.

It has long been taught that the Great Fire of London stopped the plague in it's tracks - this is wrong - the fire didn't happen until 1666 and in a totally different part of the City. There is no certainty about what exactly did bring the plague to a halt but as it was brought to this country via the sea, from Holland and France, tighter controls and quarantines at the Ports are believed to have made the difference.

At the time of the plague London had a population of 500,000 - a massive increase from 1600 when it had been only 140,000. About 20% of the population died, and another 10% left the City. In fact about 15% of plague victims actually survived.

A point to bear in mind - even today there are about 1000 cases of bubonic plague every year! Thankfully the last outbreak of any kind in Britain was in the early 20th century, in Liverpool.

OK here endeth your history lesson for the week!

1 comment:

Adrian said...

What a great blog! Full of fascinating incidents and interesting titbits.

I used work near Holborn, but never knew about these walks - what a shame!