Visitation of the Plague, London 1665

A Journal of the Plague Year, being observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences, as well public as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665. Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London. ~A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe

It was in early December 1664 when two men died at the upper end of Drury Lane in St. Giles parish in London. Although the family made an attempt to conceal the manner of death, it became rumoured in the neighbourhood that they had died of the plague. The Secretaries of State dispatched two physicians and a surgeon to view the corpses and give their opinion on the cause of death. After seeing the telltale signs, they confirmed it was the plague. In the weekly bill of mortality, it was reported Plague, 2. Parishes infected, 1.

Another in the same house died later that December, officially recorded as having died of distemper, and the parish grew concerned but then the weather grew colder and nothing further happened and the fears of an epidemic subsided briefly. Then in mid-February, a similar death occurred in another house in St. Giles. Burials in the parish increased throughout that spring, some confirmed as plague but many reported as spotted-fever or distemper. Alarm briefly flared as the rise in the number of burials spread to the nearby parishes of St. Andrew’s Holborn and St. Clement Danes, but deaths seemed mostly from other causes, with only a handful of plague cases confirmed.

But by the end of May it was apparent to all that plague was rampant in St. Giles, with whole streets being affected, and entire families ill.

The next bill was from the 23rd of May to the 30th, when the number of the plague was seventeen. But the burials in St Giles’s were fifty-three—a frightful number!—of whom they set down but nine of the plague; but on an examination more strictly by the justices of peace, and at the Lord Mayor’s request, it was found there were twenty more who were really dead of the plague in that parish, but had been set down of the spotted-fever or other distempers, besides others concealed.~A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe

Many of the people of London with the means to do so prepared to leave. They lined up at the Mayor’s door to get passes and certificates of health to travel abroad. With rumours circulating that the Government would order turnpikes and barriers on the road to prevent people travelling, the more affluent families packed up their households and fled to the countryside. The Royal Court moved to Oxford.

As the summer wore on, the plague, previously confined to a few parishes outside the walls of London began to creep closer.

It was now mid-July, and the plague, which had chiefly raged at the other end of the town, and, as I said before, in the parishes of St Giles, St Andrew’s, Holborn, and towards Westminster, began to now come eastward towards the part where I lived. It was to be observed, indeed, that it did not come straight on towards us; for the city, that is to say, within the walls, was indifferently healthy still; nor was it got then very much over the water into Southwark; for though there died that week 1268 of all distempers, whereof it might be supposed above 600 died of the plague, yet there was but twenty-eight in the whole city, within the walls, and but nineteen in Southwark, Lambeth parish included; whereas in the parishes of St Giles and St Martin-in-the-Fields alone there died 421.~A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe

Streets in the affected areas grew empty and desolate, with many houses closed up and only the occasional watchman standing guard.

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#5d5d5d” text=”#ffffff” width=”content” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”London might well be said to be all in tears; the mourners did not go about the streets indeed, for nobody put on black or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearest friends; but the voice of mourners was truly heard in the streets. The shrieks of women and children at the windows and doors of their houses, where their dearest relations were perhaps dying, or just dead, were so frequent to be heard as we passed the streets, that it was enough to pierce the stoutest heart in the world to hear them. Tears and lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end men’s hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.” cite=”~A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

Those who remained in the city saw an increasing number of bills and papers on the posts of houses and on the street corners advertising preventatives and cures for the plague with quacks and opportunists seeing a ready market in the growing panic for their wares.

‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Neverfailing preservatives against the infection.’ ‘Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.’ ‘Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.’ ‘Anti-pestilential pills.’ ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.’ ‘An universal remedy for the plague.’ ‘The only true plague water.’ ‘The royal antidote against all kinds of infection’A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe

From the first of July, the Lord Mayor ordered that examiners were to be appointed in every parish to visit every house and determine which persons were sick and with which diseases. If plague were present, the house should be shut up. At every infected house, two watchmen should be posted with one on duty at night and the other throughout the day to ensure that no person entered or exited the house. Women searchers were appointed to look for corpses and to determine to the best of their abilities the manner in which they died. The searchers were to be joined by ‘chirurgeons’, to ensure that the true causes of death were reported. Those who nursed the plague victims were to be quarantined for twenty-eight days following a plague death so that they did not spread the disease.

Heads of households were ordered to report any appearance of disease within their households within two hours of the first appearance of blotch or purple or swelling in any part of the body. The household was then to be sealed for a month. Any bedding and apparel from the sealed houses must be ‘well aired with fire and such perfumes as are requisite’ before being put to use again.

Burials were to take place after sunset and before sunrise. Corpses were to be buried at least six feet deep and no mourners were to gather at the corpse, the coffin or the grave.


[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#5d5d5d” text=”#ffffff” width=”content” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”That every house visited be marked with a red cross of a foot long in the middle of the door, evident to be seen, and with these usual printed words, that is to say, Lord, have mercy upon us, to be set close over the same cross, there to continue until lawful opening of the same house.” cite=”~A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

Hackney-coaches used to carry infected persons to the pest-house and other such places should be well aired and sit idle for five or six days afterwards. Streets were to be kept clean. Householders were responsible for cleaning the area in front of their houses daily and rakers would take the filth away. The laystalls 1Place where rubbish and dung was deposited were to be removed far away from the city and any common passage. They were not to be emptied into a garden. No hogs, dogs, cats or tame pigeons were to be kept in the city.

Gatherings of all kinds were prohibited, including plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler-play 2sword fighting with a small shield used to parry blows and any type of public feasting. No one was to remain in any tavern, ale-house or coffee-house to drink after nine o’clock in the evening. All trading ceased. Few ships came up the river Thames and none went down. The workmen and labourers of the city were without work, without pay and without any way to earn their daily bread. Those not stricken with the plague were afflicted with the consequences of it: poor, destitute and hungry.

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#5d5d5d” text=”#ffffff” width=”content” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”However, the poor people could not lay up provisions, and there was a necessity that they must go to market to buy, and others to send servants or their children; and as this was a necessity which renewed itself daily, it brought abundance of unsound people to the markets, and a great many that went thither sound brought death home with them.” cite=”~A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

Any who could now fled the city or locked themselves in their houses voluntarily, hoping to avoid the plague. Ways to avoid illness were passed from one to the next and many would hold garlic or rue in their mouths or constantly smoke tobacco to ward of the disease. Others soaked their heads in vinegar, dousing their clothes with it and held handkerchiefs wetting with vinegar to their nose. Many thought that smoke and the smell of burning pitch would protect them from infection and all but suffocated themselves with the fumes and stench.

Accounts of mortality were kept by the parish officers and in the two months from August through to the beginning of October they recorded close to 60,000 dead of the plague but the numbers were likely far greater. Many of the parish clerks were taken sick and died without turning in their accounts, and the job of recording the dead was just too overwhelming. As people dropped from the plague, sometimes within hours of infection, they were left to lie in the streets or in closed up houses. When the dead were picked up by the dead-carts that rolled through the city after dark, they were stacked several deep and defied a proper counting. The removal of bodies was a vile and dangerous task and those so employed often fell sick and died themselves. If it were not that many in the city were starving for want of bread, there would have been no one left for the task but as it was, the poor faced the hard choice between sure starvation and the strong likelihood of being infected by close contact with the dead as they carried them off to the mass pit graves.

As September turned to October and then October turned to November, the mortality numbers began slowly to fall and people began to come into the city again which resulted in a sudden spike in the number of dead as the newcomers quickly succumbed. The plague had by now spread to other parts of England and had infected the cities of Norwich, Peterborough, Lincoln, Colchester and others, but London slowly began to recover. Trade was very slow to resume but eventually the traders from Spain and Portugal, Italy and the Barbary, Hamburg and the Baltic began to arrive in the ports once more.

Some say that the Great Fire that all but decimated the city of London between 2 September to 5 September 1666 stopped the plague from returning but others believe that the rats carrying the disease became immune in part and that the human survivors also carried immunity, making it harder for the disease to spread. Whatever the case, the plague, while not being wiped out by any means, never returned with the virulence of the year 1665.

Bills of Mortality for London 1665
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Plague Today

The plague is still with us even today. Each year, between 1000 and 2000 cases are reported to the World Health Organization although there are most likely many cases that go unreported. Most prevalent in Africa in small towns and villages, the plague is estimated to kill 8-10% of its victims.

Since April 1, 2015, a total of 11 cases of human plague have been reported in residents of six states: Arizona (two), California (one), Colorado (four), Georgia (one), New Mexico (two), and Oregon (one). The two cases in Georgia and California residents have been linked to exposures at or near Yosemite National Park in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Nine of the 11 patients were male; median age was 52 years (range = 14–79 years). Three patients aged 16, 52, and 79 years died.Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, CDC August 28, 2015
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1 Place where rubbish and dung was deposited
2 sword fighting with a small shield used to parry blows