When the Plague came to London

This time of year in Britain at least is known as the Flu season. Our highly changeably though at this time of year predominantly chilly and wet weather combined with some particularly overcrowded cities means that we are perhaps uniquely exposed cold and flu.  In fact last year was the first year in over 10 where I haven’t had to go to hospital or some similar emergency medical facility over the Christmas and New Year week which as I have my birthday right in the middle is particularly unfortunate.  It’s a grim way to enjoy Christmas and though I survived to January 17th last year, I ended up with a cold that turned into pneumonia for 8 weeks which wasn’t much fun.

Whilst I get it much worse than most, even I take my hat off to the suffering of my forebears of centuries ago when the plague arrived in London, as it did several times over the years.  Then as now, London was overcrowded and with no modern sanitation, the mortality rates in London and indeed the rest of Britain were said to be the worst in the world with up two thirds of the population succumbing to the awful disease.

Some of the best records anywhere about the Plague are those written by the now renowned diarist Samuel Pepys who recorded exactly what he saw and whose observations can still be found in the publication of his diary in the 1970’s by C L Doughty.

It was a stifling day in June when Mr Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts at the Navy Office, saw the dreaded red crosses for the first time. They had been painted on the doors of three houses in London’s Drury Lane, and the words “Lord Have Mercy On Us” were scrawled below them.

Pepys knew only too well what the crosses meant. The houses had been officially shut up because the people who lived there had caught the plague. Now they would have to survive a full month before being let out again. The tubby little man in fashionable clothes hurried into a shop and bought some chewing tobacco, and soon the taste overcame the stench of the filthy street. But there was no getting away from the fact that the plague was drawing nearer to the heart of London day by day.

It was bubonic plague, and it had arrived on this occasion by way of the rats from a merchant ship that had been trading in the East. It was not an unusual thing to happen in the London of 1665. There were always a few cases of the dreaded disease in every great port, although the victims usually died before the contagion had a chance to spread. But this summer the weather had been almost unbearably hot and still and people told each other that there had been no breath of wind to blow the pestilence away. During the month of May it had crept eastwards across London, seemingly jumping from house to house along Holborn. Now its arrival in Drury Lane was a clear indication that it was beginning to spread south as well.

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys went home to his house in Seething Lane and settled down in his study, for the British navy had just fought a highly successful action against the Dutch and he was eager to record the details in his diary.

It was to be one of his last cheerful entries for some time.

As he scribbled busily in shorthand, this 32-year-old civil servant had no means of knowing that he was nightly compiling what is treasured today as one of the most fascinating chronicles in the English language. Other people’s diaries usually make rather dull reading. Pepys is never dull. Often he is remarkably funny, because in his 1,300,000-word story, we read about the man as he really was. Believing that he wrote for his eyes alone, Pepys kept his diary with absolute honesty, regardless of whether its contents made him look ridiculous or not.

Having finished his report on the sea battle, Pepys then went on to note the unhappy business of his new suit. It was a typical domestic tragedy. The tailor had promised to bring the suit, but had failed to arrive on time, so Pepys had been forced to wear something else. But no sooner had he finished dressing than the tailor had arrived, which meant taking off the old suit and dressing all over again. Finally the Clerk of the Acts showed his wife, Elizabeth, his new finery, only to be told that it did not suit him. It was exactly the sort of thing that was always happening to Pepys, who might have been a man of consequence at the Navy Office but had to tread a good deal more warily at home.

Plague Doctor

Plague Doctors, possibly the worst job in history ever.

The next time Pepys went to the Tower to inspect the latest list of people who had died of plague, he was concerned to find that it had risen to nearly 300 during the past week. With a grim feeling of foreboding, he set about finding a lodging for his wife and servants at Woolwich, in those days considered to be an extremely long way from London. Elizabeth protested, but on this occasion she finally did as she was told.

The next week saw the numbers on the “mortality lists” totalling 700, and the one after that topped the thousand. Now the streets of London were crowded with people making for the country, their belongings piled up on every sort of vehicle from rich coaches to broken-down hand carts. Many of these city folk would find themselves barred from other towns and would end by starving in the fields, but as more and more fell sick, it seemed vital to get out of the stricken city at all costs.

The king and his court were not long in following and found refuge at Oxford. Pepys could easily have gone, too, but something held him back. He wrote lightly to a colleague who had seen action against the Dutch that he had “taken his turn with the sword” and that now it was up to others to take their turn with the pestilence.

Pepys meant what he said, but there were other reasons for staying. England was still at war, and the provisioning and refitting of fighting ships was something that would have to be supervised. Pepys was content that the work should fall on him. What was more, and Pepys did not admit this even to himself, he was filled with curiosity. True, he was very frightened of the plague. But something was happening to his beloved city that might never happen again. However ghastly it might be, he had to be there to record it.

It was ghastly all right. In July, more than 17,000 Londoners died, and Pepys was concerned at the rate the disease was spreading, even in the countryside. Visiting Elizabeth at Woolwich, he passed a farm on which the bodies of no less than twenty-one labourers lay dead in the fields. And within the city itself, the administration was undoubtedly breaking down. At first the authorities had divided the city up into districts and allotted each a staff of nurses and watchmen to keep some kind of order. But when 8,000 people were dying every week, there were just not enough officials to go round any more.

Greatly fearing, but driven by his usual urge to see everything (“God forgive me,” he noted guiltily in his diary), Pepys followed the endless line of carts that bore the dead to the great plague pits that were being dug in areas of open ground. Separate burials had long been abandoned, and he stood aghast at the sight of the huge common graves.

Like most Londoners in those days, Pepys made use of the boatmen on the Thames as a means of easy transport, but the plague had struck them down like everyone else.

“But Lord! What a sad time it is to see no boats on the river,” he wrote, “and grass grows up and down Whitehall Court, and nobody but poor wretches in the streets!”

Anyone who could find a way of leaving London had done so by September. Red crosses were no longer painted on doors, because there was now no means of keeping the sick inside. Many rushed through the streets in their delirium and died where they dropped. Pepys, shuddering, would find himself facing the sick in narrow alleys where it was impossible to keep at a safe distance. He should have been infected a dozen times, but he was one of the lucky ones.

There was certainly an enormous amount of work to be done, for at sea, the war with the Dutch was at its height. Huge quantities of captured goods were brought to port and somehow Pepys accounted for them and stowed them away.

These prize goods were badly needed, for the plague had brought commerce to a standstill and no taxes were being collected. This meant that with no money in the exchequer, the sailors were not being paid. Sick and wounded men were turned off their ships and abandoned. Each day, Pepys had to listen to the “horrible crowd and lamentable groan of the poor seamen that lie starving for lack of money.”

He did what he could for them, helping many from his own pocket. Then, as the weather grew colder with approaching winter, the death rate began to fall. Little by little, people began to creep back to the city and life began again. Out of a population of 400,000, something like 70,000 had died. And if one allows for the fact that two-thirds of the population had fled the city, the true death rate must have been about one in three.

Samuel Pepys survived. His diary makes it clear that he did not consider he had been very brave. He had simply stuck to his post as a man should. The classic remark of British heroes down the centuries.

If you’d like to read a quite incredible account of The Plague, then check out my old post on Eyam Plague Village or for something more contemporary then this post on how engineers come across Plague Pits in London today.

I visit quite a few Pepys related sights on my Ye Olde England Tours.  You can visit the location of his house on my Secret Sacred Spaces Walk or visit the cherry gardens along the Thames where Pepys would pick fruit on my Mayflower Walking Tour   or even see the spot where he buried his priceless Parmesan Cheese to escape the Great Fire of London on my Charles Dickens Walk which also visits a Plague Pit.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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8 Responses to When the Plague came to London

  1. Marilyn Liddell Hall (maiden name) Allan says:

    I just read this article and a few others mentioned you had written about….very interesting! I had not known a lot about the plague! What a horrible time to have to live through! We are truly blessed to be living now when we have so many antibiotics that will help keep us alive when we get sick! A scarey time for so many families!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Francis says:

    Fascinating! I remember there is a plague pit opposite where the Horniman museum is now. But is this just an urban legend?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Francis, apparently 38,000 bodies are buried right next to that museum!! There are some rough maps of where some of the pits are and they are often now parks or communal grounds for blocks of flats! Some of them though were either undocumented or the records lost. Also they have a tend to move over the centuries it keeps engineers on their toes when they are digging in London as you never know when you might have evacuate in a hurry!

      Liked by 1 person

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