Top 10 worst London (and global) pandemics in history

The current Coronavirus is just the latest in a really long line of pandemic outbreaks with London getting more than its fair share of them as it always does for good and for bad.  It isn’t much consolation as we all wait this thing out and the lucky ones get through it but it’s worth remembering how this is nothing new at all, even within our living history.

These don’t even include minor local health related disasters that could easily kill tens of thousands on a localised level.

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  1. THE ANTONINE PLAGUE

It was a case of pass the plague in 165 A.D. when an early case of smallpox broke out.  Known as the Antonine plague, it began with the Huns who then infected the Germans, who passed it onto the Romans whose troops spread it throughout the Roman Empire.

Galen, a Greek physician, witnessed the outbreak and recorded the symptoms: blackish diarrhoea, which suggested gastrointestinal bleeding, intensive coughing, foul-smelling breath and red and black skin eruptions all over their body.

The total deaths have been estimated at five million, and the disease killed as much as one-third of the population in some areas and devastated the Roman army.  This plague continued until about 180 A.D, claiming Emperor Marcus Aurelius as one of its victims.

 

2. THE PLAGUE OF JUSTINIAN

Nearly 800 years before the more notorious Black Death arrived in the UK/Europe, there was the Plague of Justinian. The World’s first pandemic in recorded history. Named after the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, who almost died from the disease too. This plague was also caused by the Yersinia Pestis (the bacterium which causes bubonic plague) and is recorded as beginning in 541 AD and killed many millions of people across the empire.

It is commonly believed that the virus was transported to Constantinople by rats on board cargo ships arriving from North Africa. This plague reduced a great city into a morbid citadel of dead. The bodies of the dead lay in the street unable to be buried.

Surviving accounts of the plague are dominated by the writings of the historian Procopius, a Byzantine scholar who lived in Constantinople when the pandemic broke out. His narrative tells a story where the plague was catastrophic in the sheer number of people succumbing to the virus. In one record he wrote:

“Now the disease in Byzantium ran a course of four months, and its greatest virulence lasted about three. And at first the deaths were a little more than the normal, then the mortality rose still higher, and afterwards the tale of dead reached five thousand each day, and again it even came to ten thousand and still more than that. Now in the beginning each man attended to the burial of the dead of his own house, and these they threw even into the tombs of others, either escaping detection or using violence; but afterwards confusion and disorder everywhere became complete. For slaves remained destitute of masters, and men who in former times were very prosperous were deprived of the service of their domestics who were either sick or dead, and many houses became completely destitute of human inhabitants. For this reason it came about that some of the notable men of the city because of the universal destitution remained unburied for many days…… the whole human race came near to being annihilated.”

This gives us an insight into the level of fear the pandemic created across the empire. However it was a very bad pandemic with similar symptoms of the strain that will decimate Europe in 1347.

 

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3. THE BLACK DEATH

In 1347 that Europe was at the mercy of what is one of the World’s most infamous pandemic of all time: The Black Death. Archaeologists, historians and scientists still debate the exact origins of this outbreak of the plague, with China being a favoured candidate by many experts. Some theories have even suggested that it was one of the earliest forms of biological warfare, posing that the spread the plague to Europe, was caused after Mongol soldiers besieged the port city of Kaffa in Crimea, and fell ill during the stand-off. It is alleged that these Mongol soldiers began catapulting the plague-ridden bodies of their dead comrades over the walls of Kaffa, to spread the contagion within the city.

A contemporary chronicler records that when people in Kaffa later travelled to Venice and other nearby cities in Europe, “it was as if they had brought evil spirits with them”.

It is possible that the inhabitants of Kaffa went on to play a key role in disseminating the plague throughout Europe. Back then people still had very limited understanding as to what exactly caused the spread of viruses and diseases, and would never have known they were now carriers/spreaders of a deadly pathogen. The Black Death eventually had an apocalyptic impact, with historian Ole Benedictow suggesting around 60% of Europe’s population was wiped out.

A particularly gory account left by a chronicler in Florence details how communities tried to cope with the disaster; burying bodies on top of one another in multiple mass graves, with bodies and soil layered “just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese”.

It is said that the Black Death was the final time when humanity as a species risked either extinction or losing a viable population.

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4. THE 2ND GREAT PLAGUE (OF LONDON)

From 1665 to 1666 almost a quarter of London’s population would die in the Great Plague. This was an epidemic rather than a pandemic, as it did not spread across continents, but for Londoners living in the squalid, cramped conditions of the city at that time. The symptoms were beyond horrific for those unfortunate enough to be struck down with it.

It spread at an astronomical rate and spread to other parts of England. A sad record denotes “there is no longer enough people left alive to bury the dead”.

This was the worst outbreak of plague in England since the black death of 1348. London lost roughly 25% of its population. Although 68,596 deaths were recorded in the city, experts believe the true number was probably exceeded well over 100,000 people. As well as the the thousands who died from the Bubonic Plague in other parts of the country too.

The earliest cases of disease occurred in the spring of 1665 in a parish outside the city walls called St Giles-in-the-Fields. The death rate began to rise during the hot summer months and peaked in September when 7,165 Londoners died in one week.

Those who could, including most doctors, lawyers and merchants, fled the city. Charles II and his courtiers left in July for Hampton Court and then Oxford. Parliament was postponed and had to sit in October at Oxford, the increase of the plague being so dreadful. Court cases were also moved from Westminster to Oxford.

The Lord Mayor and aldermen (town councillors) remained to enforce the King’s orders to try and stop the spread of the disease. The poorest people remained in London with the rats and those people who had the plague. Watchmen locked and kept guard over infected houses. Parish officials provided food. Searchers looked for dead bodies and took them at night to plague pits for burial.

All trade with London and other plague afflicted towns was stopped. The Council of Scotland declared that the border with England would be closed. There were to be no fairs or trade with other countries. This meant many people lost their jobs; from servants, smiths and traders to those who worked on the River.
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Diarist Samuel Pepys also records the grim atmosphere pervading London, saying “nobody but poor wretches in the streets” and how there was “little noise heard day or night but tolling of bells”.

 

5. THIRD CHOLERA PANDEMIC

From 1853 to 1854, the epidemic the third cholera epidemic hit London very hard, claiming over 10,000 lives, across the UK there were 23,000 deaths. This pandemic was considered to have one of the highest fatalities globally.

This was caused by a bacterial infection, cholera is a devastating illness, causing severe, deadly dehydration; and has killed millions of people across the globe through successive outbreaks over the centuries. The third pandemic originated in India during the middle of the 19th Century before it spread across the globe. Interestingly this epidemic became a notable turning point in our knowledge and understanding of how diseases are spread and contracted. Indeed during this time, the ‘miasma theory’ was still widely believed and held that cholera was the result of bad, foetid air given off by rotting matter. Something that people also believed spread the Bubonic Plague, (The Black Death/Plague). The great Victorian social reformer Edwin Chadwick even believed that ‘all smell is disease’.

However, one man, a physician named Dr John Snow, believed differently. He was a skeptic of the then-dominant miasma theory that stated that diseases such as cholera and bubonic plague were caused by pollution or a noxious form of “bad air”. The germ theory of disease had not yet been developed, so Snow did not understand the mechanism by which the disease was transmitted. His observation of the evidence led him to discount the theory of foul air. He first published his theory in an 1849 essay, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, followed by a more detailed treatise in 1855 incorporating the results of his investigation of the role of the water supply in the Soho epidemic of 1854. Where he had undertaken a systematic analysis of people stricken by cholera in Soho, London.Through this he realised they had one thing in common: a communal water pump. The removal of the pump’s handle helped usher in the end of the local outbreak.

Through his efforts Snow is now celebrated as the founder of the science of epidemiology. Indeed his studies on the water pumps is hailed as a defining moment in the evolution of the germ theory of disease.

 

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6. THE SPANISH FLU

This epidemic had a particularly catastrophic impact across Europe. It was highly virulent and very powerful, death could occur within 48 hours of symptoms presenting themselves. Curiously this pandemic fell into relative obscurity throughout the 20th Century. This is likely to be because it emerged in 1918, whilst the World was still engulfed by the Great War. However in recent years outbreaks like the swine flu and bird flu pandemics in the early 2000’s have helped to bring Spanish Flu back into the public consciousness as a kind of “worst case scenario” warning from the past.

With a body count thought to be as high as 100 million people, the Spanish Flu did not actually start in Spain. The name simply arose because wartime censorship stifled coverage of the pandemic in Allied nations, while neutral Spain was free to print stories of the terrifying outbreak. There is still much debate about where the deadly H1N1 flu virus took hold, with suspicion falling on army bases in the US and France. In any case, massive troop movements helped spread the disease, with hideous consequences for patients who would often drown on their own haemorrhaging blood.

It was at this time a British doctor in Asia came up with an early version of a modern medical mask which had been until then unknown of in the area and which would have done much to reduce contamination there.  Since then surgical masks have been somewhat adopted in east-Asia even though elsewhere the practice is almost unknown and scientifically all but useless in a crisis such as today.

 

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7. ASIAN FLU

Asian Flu was a pandemic outbreak of Influenza A of the H2N2 subtype that originated in China in 1956 and lasted until 1958.

In the first few months, it spread throughout China and its regions but by the midsummer it had reached the United States, where it initially infected relatively few people.

Several months later, however, numerous cases of infection were reported, especially in young children, the elderly, and pregnant women.

The pandemic also reached the UK and by December a total of 3,550 deaths had been reported in England and Wales.

Estimates for the death toll vary depending on the source, but the World Health Organization places the final tally at approximately 2million, 69,800 of those in the US alone

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8. HONG KONG FLU

From the first reported case on July 13, 1968 in Hong Kong, it took only 17 days before outbreaks of this virus — referred to as the Hong Kong Flu — were reported in Singapore and Vietnam, and within three months had spread to The Philippines, India, Australia, Europe, and the United States.

While the 1968 pandemic had a comparatively low mortality rate, it still resulted in the deaths of more than a million people, including 500,000 residents of Hong Kong itself, approximately 15 per cent of its population at the time.

 

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9. ZIKA VIRUS

Finally a virus that gave London a wide berth. The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne flavivirus transmitted primarily by the aggressive blood-sucking Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and symptoms included fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes.

In May 2015, the first local transmission of Zika virus was reported in Brazil and researchers believed the virus was introduced during the August 2014 World Sprint Championship canoe race, held in Rio de Janeiro, which attracted participants from four Pacific Island nations, including French Polynesia, with active Zika transmission.

The virus soon spread and affected more than 1.5million people in 68 countries, thanks to the mosquito’s ability to thrive in city life, flourishing in litter, open ditches, clogged drains, old tyre dumps and crowded flimsy dwellings.

The virus was also linked to thousands of babies in Brazil being born with microcephaly, a neurological disorder where the baby had an underdeveloped brain and an abnormally small head.

There were also a rising number of stillbirths and miscarriages in mothers infected with the virus.  The children that did survive faced intellectual disability and developmental delays.

10.  The Coronavirus

First coming to light in early December 2019 in Wuhan, China.   For a while it seemed contained there despite incompetent government action which was somewhat made-up for by a belated but severe lock-down.    However global it was too late and the virus was soon to spread around the world. As of 15 March, over 167,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in around 140 countries and territories; more than 6,400 people have died from the disease and around 76,000 have recovered with the peak in London still estimated to be 8-10 weeks away.

 

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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 Top 10 worst London (and global) pandemics in history

  1. #Fearmongering 😣😠😢😶

    Like

  2. The world has been through so much in the past and still survived. I have a weirdly positive idea that this whole collective hardship may also enable people to stop playing the old songbook of people being so different from each other, and instead realising that through shared pain we all have a connection…or something.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes I agree. I might do a post on this. I have so many hopes of how this could change the world for the better. At least for some camaraderie that only comes through terrible events; I guess the World Wars being the last rally bad things outside of African and Chinese famines etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah people tend to rally together when times get tough overall for everyone. With everyone in the same boat too, there is something that is beautiful about that. Connection is everything to help to get us all though I think, even if the connections are online. Yeah would love to see that post of yours. Take care

        Liked by 1 person

  3. annadusseau says:

    Interesting post. I am cautiously optimistic there may be positive long term outcomes too..

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Coronavirus Diary 7 – I may well be going mad, well more mad anyway. | Stephen Liddell

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