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The Great Plague 1665-66

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The Great Plague of 1665-1666 in London was of the bubonic variety. Often quoted as being more preferable to the 'pneumonic' or 'septicaemic' versions (possibly popularised in the 'Ring a Ring of Roses' nursery rhyme - atishoo, atishoo etc.) where technically you sneezed The Plague Doctor's 'beak mask' contained powerful aromas to prevent miasmas of contagion from infecting him - this style is from Rome but they were also worn in London's Great Plagueand dropped dead. At least bubonic gave you a sporting chance of survival (about 40%). We know now that it came from fleas, hitching a ride via continental rats who came in through the City of London's many docks, wharves and jetties - probably from Holland.  It's estimated that a fifth of all Londoners (around 70-100,000 people in total) were killed in this short period. The first recorded case was Rebecca Andrews on 12 April 1665, though poorer peoples' records were rarely kept so diligently and it's likely she was further down the actual chain.

By July the plague had entered the city proper and the court of King Charles the II beat a hasty retreat to Oxfordshire. London basically boarded itself up, with those richer businessmen who had the means to leave - promptly doing so. Very few premises remained open except for the odd physician or apothecary who attempted to stem the flood-tide of contagion. The poor were legally prevented from leaving, to halt the spread of infection. Samuel Pepys is one of the notables who also decided to tough it out.

Bubonic plague centres around the lymph glands, causing them to swell. Infection would take between 2-5 days and aside from swellings under the arms and in the neck and groin area, the patient would feel:

  • - Chills
  • - Nausea
  • - High fever
  • - Muscle pain
  • - Severe headache
  • - Seizures


This would then rapidly degenerate into (steel yourself) - Blood vomiting, blood in the urine, extreme pain, breathing difficulty and coma. The extreme pain was caused by the skin decaying in the same manner as it would after death - except the person was still alive. Most people who exhibited symptoms would die within 3 days of the first signs.

Unqualified 'Plague Doctors' would cross the city, diagnosing victims and attempting to keep the contamination contained. Bodies were dropped into deep 'Plague Pits' to likewise prevent the disease from spreading and ensuing panic from gripping the population. But panic did spread as remorselessly as The Bearers of the Plague Dead - collecting bodies. Note the pipe as tobacco was thought to protect from infectionthe disease itself. The City Corporation ordered all cats and dogs to be culled, imagining they were related to the infection's spread. Unfortunately cats and dogs kept the rat population in check, so when they were dispatched, control on the disease went into a tailspin. Substances giving off strong odours, such as pepper, hops or frankincense, were burned, in an attempt to clear the air of evil 'miasmas' or poisons of the aether. Tobacco was thought to help avoid infection and posies were held under the nose as the population scuttled from one location to another. These posies usually contained petals to mask the stench of decay, but richer customers augmented them with exotic spices such as nutmeg which was thought to prevent plague. One of the contributing factors to its meteoric rise in value (above that of gold, by weight) was its supposed preventative effect and that it could only be obtained from one small island in the East Indies. Which further added to its mysticism.

The population was divided in how best to deal with the threat. One section thought that moderation and avoiding anything unnecessary would help save them from the Reaper. They separated themselves from the general public and boarded up their houses (with the sick removed). They ate and drank in moderation, listened to no music and seldom indulged in any form of pleasure. They also never discussed the plague or what may become of them.  Many others took the opposite view. They imagined that if they drank and were excessively merry, they were more likely to be spared. Likewise, they strictly avoided the sick and infirm. It's interesting to note that although this was the last major outbreak in London, the idiom 'avoid like the plague' is still commonly used to this day. Indicating the depth of feeling towards the sick, some twenty generations later.

Society did to a certain extent break down, as body disposal became a A recently discovered 'Plague Pit'. Bodies were piled into these deep pits usually every evening.serious issue. Most were aware that coming into contact with corpses would lead to infection. 'Bearers of the Plague Dead' - an official job role was paid along with grave digging, at an increasingly higher rate - danger money, if you like. However the death rate soared - huge pits were dug and many victims cast in, with little record of who they were. This did not sit well with the God-fearing population. You didn't attend church to be dropped namelessly, into a pit after death - no sir!  The vast majority of parish records were also later destroyed in the Great Fire of London and these two factors have prevented an accurate estimation of the final death toll.

Deaths in London grew to 7,000 people per week in September 1665 and then began to slow. By February 1666 the King and his Court returned, with the immediate danger having passed. Although it's often cited as 'wiping out the plague', the Great Fire of London in September 1666 in actuality had little impact. Most of the cases by then were well outside the city centre (the part the fire destroyed) and cases had greatly diminished over the preceding months. The fire did however cause the city to be rebuilt in stone with more generous open spaces and less overcrowding, which contributed to the end of plague outbreaks. It was therefore - an indirect saviour.

(Note: If you're interested in Plague related information, you might want to try Daniel Defoe's - A Journal of the Plague Year. It's a fictional account, written by him some fifty years after the event (he was only 5 years old when it happened), but it's the forgotten detail and language which make it a gripping read. If the prospect of reading a book in a form of English that's now defunct concerns you - try to stick with it. It's uncomfortable at first, but your brain adapts quickly after a few dozen pages and it draws you inwards in a way that modern prose can't. Witness the evergreen popularity of Jane Austen, f'r'instance.)


The Great Plague in London, 1665-1666

(The narrator sounds curiously robotic - though he is 'on topic')

(And it's 'Peeps' not 'Pep-eyes' - you unusual man. It's a robot reader *solved* for people who don't want to narrate their films)

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