Wednesday 7 May 2008

Friday 2nd May 2008 - The Great Plague

This is basically the same walk that I took last year, so I have just updated it and included some photos and illustrations.

London in the 1660s was a very different place - Large numbers lived in the City area, this was surrounded by 'The Liberties' and then there were poorer areas surrounding them. The parish of St. Giles where the plague broke out was a very poor area. London was still a medieval city - cramped, crowded and smelly. The plague was always around and tended to break out once every 15 years or so on a large scale. But the plague which hit London in 1665 was a much deadlier strain. It was believed the origins of this plague began in 1663 in the eastern Mediterranean and spread to Holland where there were 20,000 deaths, before coming to England in 1664. Flemish weavers who lived in Drury Lane were blamed as they unpacked 'contaminated goods' from Holland.
From a contemporary print in the Pepysian Collection

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, Dr. William Boghurst, 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. He said "I commonly dressed 40 sores a day". The symptoms were a high fever, painful swelling of the lymph nodes, particularly in the armpits and the groin, blotches up to an inch across (hence the nursery rhyme 'Ring a Ring a Roses') and lastly caused damage to the nervous system, causing delirium. The screams from victims would strike terror into people nearby. Death usually followed 4 to 7 days after the appearance of the symptoms. 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. In Italy and France they built Plague Hospitals outside the cities, but here the victims were contained within the city which exacerbated the problem.

Daniel Defoe wrote a Journal of the Plague Year published in 1722. Defoe would only have been about 5 years old when the plague occurred so although it is written from a personal perspective which he couldn't actually have had at such a tender age, he did use proper historical resources and references. The following are some quotes from the journal.

"...the latter end of November or the beginning of December 1664 when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Long Acre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane"

And then people got even more alarmed:

"because in the last week of December 1664 another man died in the same house and of the same distemper. And then we were easy again for about 6 weeks, when none having died with any marks of infection, it was said the distemper was gone; but after that, I think it was about the 12th of February, another died in another house, but in the same parish and in the same manner."

In April/May 1665 the plague spread from the outer areas to the City itself: In Defoe's words: "to the great affliction of the city, one died within the walls. It was found that this Frenchman who died in Bearbinder Lane was one who, having lived in Long Acre, near the infected houses had removed for fear of the distemper, not knowing that he was already infected."

In the late summer of 1665 the plague was reaching it's peak. Defoe wrote:

"I went up to Holborn and there the street was full of people; but they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side or other, because, as I suppose, they would not mingle with anybody that came out of the houses, or meet with smells and scents from houses, that might be infected."

Daniel Defoe

And from Samuel Pepys diary 7th June 1665:

"This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and 'Lord have mercy upon us' writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell and to chaw, which took away the apprehension".

Samuel Pepys

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. The official response to the plague from the Church was that it was 'God's punishment' The wealthy left London as quickly as possible and the court moved to Oxford. All play, exhibitions and games were banned. Perhaps the winners here were the poor bears, freed from bear baiting.

Killing dogs to halt the plague

We walked to Newton Street next. It was here in a house on this site that an experiment was attempted to try and stop the spread of the plague. The government asked James Angier, an expert in infectious disorders to try fumigating the building. He used a mixture of saltpetre, brimstone and amber. Four people in the house had already died and two more were infected. Following the fumigation, no further infections occurred, but whether the fumigation was successful or because it just drove the rats away no one knows. No further experiments took place.

We then moved on to Bloomsbury Square - the site of a plague pit. When the cemeteries quickly became overcrowded the government decided mass graves were the only answer so large 'plague pits' were dug and one was sited here in Bloomsbury Square. It was discovered when, digging out the car park underneath the square, the workmen came across a large number of bodies!

Bloomsbury Square

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. Within a 3 to 4 years London had recovered and was once again a thriving city.

A Bill of Mortality for the year 1665

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.

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