The ‘Great Plague’ of 1665

With all the recent talk about bookcases I noticed, in mine, a copy of “A New History of England and Great Britain” by Prof. J. M. D. Meikeljohn, of the University of St Andrew’s, and published in 1903.

Unsurprisingly, it records many notable events in the story of our nation including the first ‘English’ landing in 449 – “They sent word home to their friends how fertile the land was, and how weak the people; and thus began the stream of English immigration into the goodly island of Great Britain.”

A recent blog about ‘The Black Death’ of 1349, was surprisingly well-read, perhaps because of its topicality or maybe because it was widely shared, so I’ve plucked out a passage about England’s second most famous plague incident…

The Great Plague

June of 1665 was a month of extraordinary heat, and the winter and spring had been the driest ever known in England. London was at that time a city of narrow streets, overhanging houses, and no drainage of any systematic kind. There was in this summer no grass to be seen anywhere, and the country round London looked dreary, parched, brown and dusty.

In the coffee-houses – which were the clubs of the seventeenth century- hushed whispers pass from man to man, that the Dutch fleet is in the waters of the Thames, and that the plague is in the city. On the 7th June, Pepys, the Secretary for the Navy, see in Drury Lane “two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors (the ‘fatal red cross, a foot in length’), and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there.” Into the ill-drained and narrow streets of London neither light nor fresh air could easily penetrate. The richer people fled, and even the physicians and the clergy ran to the country for their lives.

The streets were filled all day and all night with “coaches and wagons and carts hurrying away with goods, women, servants, and children,” and the king and his sorry court were the first to set the bad example of flight. Only the stout Duke of Albemarle, Monck, among the higher ranks, stood to his post, and fearlessly chewed tobacco and drank his strong beer, in his town garden.

All night – and, when the plague had advanced, all day and all night – the dead-cart went its rounds, with the weird noise of the gloomy bell, and the hoarse voices of the buriers crying, “Bring out your dead!” Slowly it rumbled along, picking up a corpse in this house and another in that, until it appeared at the mouth of a vast and deep common foss or grave, into which it shot at once sixteen or seventeen bodies, uncoffined and unshrouded, unattended and uncared for by friends or by relations.

“The people fell thick as leaves in autumn when they are shaken by a mighty wind;” grass grew everywhere in the silent and untrodden streets, – silent but for the groans of the dying and the doomed; rows of houses stood empty, and those that were occupied were marked with the red cross; and a strange and wild-looking man walked the streets day and night at a swift even pace, speaking to no one, but constantly uttering the words, “Oh, the great and dreadful God!”

In September a huge bonfire was kindled at every sight house, and kept burning day and night; ten thousand people died in one week; and in six months more than a hundred thousand had perished.

Most of the clergy had fled, but the Nonconforming ministers had the courage to stay with the people, to preach from the forsaken pulpits, to visit the sick, to relieve the poor, and to minister to the last moments of the dying. The reward which these brave men received for their self-denying work from Parliament was the Five-Mile Act.

Footnotes

  1. The plague of 1665 is called The Great Plague, because it was the worst – the last of many which under the names of The Death, The Black Death etc., had frequently devastated London and England. The narrow ill ventilated streets, the filthy lanes and alleys, the want of systematic drainage, the complete ignorance of the time as to the value of pure air and cold water, made the great cities of mediaeval and of later Europe hot-beds and forcing-houses for all kinds of pestilence. “The terrible visitor came to London once in every twenty years, and then swept away a fifth of the inhabitants.”
  2. The most picturesque account of the Plague is given by Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year. There are also some vigorous verses on the subject in Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis ( = Wonderful Year -because the Plague and the Fire both fell within a twelvemonth).

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