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The Great Plague of London 1665

Black Death in the City of London - The plague of 1665

The bubonic plague was the most commonly seen form of the Black Death in Europe.
The mortality rate was 30-75%. The symptoms were enlarged and inflamed lymph nodes (around arm pits, neck and groin). The term “bubonic” refers to the characteristic bubo or enlarged lymphatic gland. Victims were subject to headaches, nausea, aching joints, fever of 101-105 degrees, vomiting, and a general feeling of illness. Symptoms took from 1-7 days to appear. In the majority of cases death followed soon after.

Health hazards - just a part of life

England was certainly no stranger to the plague. Epidemics have been recorded in England many times from the middle of the 12th. century. Many people had died from the disease and London had suffered its share. About fifteen outbreaks had been recorded up until the most famous one in 1665. Although serious, none of these instances had come anywhere near the disastrous death toll in London that was about to take place in the hot summer months of the coming year. It is hard to imagine the fear the population went through with friends and family dying around them and the certain knowledge that they themselves would be next. The stinking living conditions, superstitions, and lack of medical skills only added to their plight.

Death brought by the Dutch

The Black Death

In the sixty years preceding this deadly outbreak the population of the City of London had more than doubled. It had reached almost half a million. The sheer numbers of people living here were making the already filthy streets, ditches and waterways even more polluted. A haven for the rats, and disease. The plague is not spread by the rats themselves but by the fleas that live upon their backs, and in early summer of 1665 some of these infested rats made it into London from a Dutch vessel (Despite the fact that trade with Holland had been forbidden due to the hostilities between the two nations). It did not take long before there was a sharp increase in the death rate among the poor of the city, caused by what was thought to be the normal strain of the disease. The situation was about to explode!

Within weeks it became clear that this was no ordinary plague. People were dying within hours of contracting it, and the appearance of the black sores that gave it the name of "The Black Death". In one of the hottest summers recorded, the death toll rose to around a thousand every week. The rich, and the royal, began to leave the city in fear of catching the disease. Panic set in and the wealthy merchants began clamouring at the gates. With so much at risk if the epidemic spread outside the walls the Lord Mayor ordered the gates to be closed and nobody allowed to leave unless in possession of an official medical clearance. Money talks all languages and the forgers and black marketers were on to a winner!

Slaughter of the animals

Isolation of the victims

Some of the city inhabitants began blaming the cats and dogs that roamed the streets for the rapid spread of the disease. The Mayor thought they could be right and so issued the order to destroy all of them. 40,000 dogs, and 200,000 cats were put down. So now there were no predators left to keep the number of rats down and the speed of the spreading of germs was increased even more! By August there were 6,000 deaths each week. By the beginning of 1666 the winter temperatures had dramatically reduced the number of new cases, but the terrifying death toll had reached over 100,000. The King decided it was time to return to the Tower of London.

The weather became cooler but the epidemic was still not over. The rats were still thriving on the litter and unsanitary conditions but mercifully infection had slowed down. At the first sign of a person having contracted the disease the whole family were sealed into their home, and prevented from leaving. A cross was painted on the door and guards were set to ensure there was no escape. Many of the guards were murdered by the people inside by lowering a rope around their necks from the top windows and strangling them in their bid for freedom. All medical personnel, or helpers, attending to the victims, had to identify themselves with bright coloured canes to help prevent others coming into contact with them.

Excerpt from the diary of Samuel Pepys

...my meeting dead corps's of the plague, carried to be buried close to me at noonday through the City in Fanchurch-street - to see a person sick of the sores carried close by me by Grace-church in a hackney-coach - my finding the Angel tavern at the lower end of Tower-hill shut up; and more then that, the alehouse at the Tower-stairs; and more then that, that the person was then dying of the plague when I was last there, a little while ago at night, to write a short letter there, and I overheard the mistress of the house sadly saying to her husband somebody was very ill, but did not think it was of the plague - to hear that poor Payne my water man hath buried a child and is dying himself - to hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenham to know how they did there is dead of the plague and that one of my own water men, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water ... is now dead of the plague - to hear ... that Mr Sidney Mountagu is sick of a desperate fever at my Lady Carteret's at Scott's hall - to hear that Mr. Lewes hath another daughter sick - and lastly, that both my servants, W Hewers and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St. Sepulchre’s parish, of the plague this week - doth put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason.

The Plague Doctors uniform

The plague doctor's costume was worn by a plague doctor to protect him from airborne diseases. It consisted of an ankle length overcoat and a bird-like beak mask filled with sweet or strong smelling substances (commonly lavender), along with gloves, boots, a brim hat and an outer over-clothing garment. The mask had glass openings for the eyes. Straps held the beak over the nose. There were two small nose holes and a type of respirator which contained aromatic items. The beak could hold dried flowers (including roses and carnations), herbs (including mint), spices, camphor or a vinegar sponge. The purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells, which were thought to be the principal cause of the disease in the miasma theory of infection, before it was disproved by germ theory. Doctors believed the herbs would counter the "evil" smells of the plague and prevent them from becoming infected.