Plague was not a new disease for London in 1665. In that year it just happened that conditions meant that all was in place for an epidemic: a mild winter that did not massively decrease the rat population as would be normal and a hot spring and summer meant many female rats gave birth to two litters. Hence London as a city was swarming with rats by September 1665. Along with the stray dogs and the many cats that lived in the city, the fleas that carried the plague were easily moved around the city. This combined with the filth that littered London provided the perfect environment for London to be consumed by the ‘Great Plague’.
However, any notion that this was a one off is wrong. The numbers involved make the year of 1665 stand out but London throughout the reign of the Stuarts – and before – had been affected by the plague.
1603: Plague deaths = 30,578; total deaths in London = 38,244
1604: Plague deaths = 896; total deaths in London = 5,219
1605: Plague deaths = 444; total deaths in London = 6,392
1606: Plague deaths = 2,124; total deaths in London = 7,920
1607: Plague deaths = 2,352; total deaths in London = 8,022
1608: Plague deaths = 2,262; total deaths in London = 9,020
1609: Plague deaths = 4,240; total deaths in London = 11,785
1610: Plague deaths = 1,803; total deaths in London = 9,087
1611: Plague deaths = 627; total deaths in London = 7,343
1612: Plague deaths = 64; total deaths in London = 7,842
1625: Plague deaths = 41,313; total deaths in London = 63,001
1630: Plague deaths = 1,317; total deaths in London = 10,554
1636: Plague deaths = 10,400; total deaths in London = 23,359
1637: Plague deaths = 3,082; total deaths in London = 11,763
1638: Plague deaths = 368; total deaths in London = 13,624
1647: Plague deaths = 3,597; total deaths in London = 14,059
While the intensity of the plague clearly varied year in year out, it still had a marked impact on London. The disease was seen just as a hazard of living in the city. However, the sheer intensity of the outbreak in 1665 eclipsed any other outbreak in the Seventeenth Century.
London, with its concentrated population, was an obvious centre for the plague to spread with ease. Not only was London heavily populated, the poorest lived very close to one another in densely populated areas that were to all intents filthy. However, any analysis of the concentration of the plague throws up no particular pattern. There is no doubt that the readily plague spread across London with deaths recorded in Whitechapel to the east, Bermondsey to the south-east, Clerkenwell to the north and Westminster in the east. There were two pockets where the disease hit very hard – Whitechapel and Southwark in the south. Both fitted a clear pattern – areas with a densely packed population that lived in poverty. The area of St. Margaret’s Hill in Southwark was hit particularly hard as was Whitechapel Road, Petticoat Lane and Houndsditch in Whitechapel. Yet the next road down from Houndsditch recorded no deaths. This may have been a failing in the system of recording deaths but the same happened at Bankside that runs at a ninety degree angle to St. Margaret’s Hill in Southwark – no recorded deaths. Areas around Fleet Street that were very near to the infamous Fleet River – essentially an open sewer – recorded very few deaths and yet to the south of Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill, just a few hundred meters in total, casualty figures were as high as 70% of the local population. This may have been the result of the local authorities very closely policing the population who lived there so that movement was kept to a minimum and plague houses boarded up. Yet even in the narrow dirt ridden streets around Cheapside to the south of the Guildhall, very few deaths were recorded while some areas recorded no deaths whatsoever – the area from the Strand to the Embankment was one such place. But just half a mile down the Strand in Westminster a death rate of 70% was recorded. The first recorded death in London from plague was a victim from the Drury Lane/Long Acre area and while this area in London had pockets where there were 70% casualties, the bulk of the area including Covent Garden recorded very few deaths. Any study of a map of London and where the plague hit, will show that you seemed to be safest if you lived within the London Wall. Within the London Wall only Thames Street and the area to the immediate west of the Fleet River recorded deaths of 70%. But very many areas within the Wall recorded far fewer deaths with the square between the Guildhall, the London Wall, Broad Street and Lothbury recorded very few. Bevis Marks ran alongside the London Wall to the northeast of London. Here no deaths were recorded. Yet immediately across the Wall were Houndsditch and Whitechapel Road where there was a death rate of 80%.
Any study of London in this era is fraught with problems.
First a historian has to rely on the statistics that came from the time and balance whether these are accurate and reliable. As no one had an accurate total population for London then, the total number of deaths may well be inaccurate as well – alternately, the authorities may have kept accurate records.
Second, any family that had the money purchased certificates that allowed them to leave the city. However, many could not afford these. But if they grouped together, searchers could easily be bribed to state that an area was clear of plague and that bodies collected for that night were from another street. In this way houses were not boarded up and people could leave them by day. Dr. Nathaniel Hodges referred to some searchers as ‘witches’ because of their corruption. So while the plague map of London may have shown areas relatively free of the plague, they may not have been.