Samuel Pepys left for the world a graphic description of the impact of the plague in London in 1665. The diaries written by Pepys cover the months when the plague first hit London in 1665 to the time in September when it was at its worst to the time in winter when the plague became less of an issue. Pepys wrote his diaries for himself though because they were so well laid out it is probable that he had an inkling that they would have one day been published. What they give an historian is an insight into a city that was devastated by a disease there was no cure for.
On April 25th 1665, two deaths from the plague were recorded. On April 30th, Pepys wrote:
“Great fear of the sickness here in the City, it is being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”
As spring moved into summer, the weather became warmer and London experienced a hot summer to follow a mild winter. The rat population grew at an alarming rate. The rats themselves were not responsible for the plague – fleas were – but along with dogs and cats, the rats were carriers of fleas. As the plague took a hold on London, Pepys wrote on June 7th:
“This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord Have Mercy upon Us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind….that I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell and chew, which took away the apprehension.”
Just three days later Pepys wrote in his diary that he feared for his own life:
“To bed, being troubled by sickness, and particularly how to put my things and estates in order, in case it should please God to call me away.”
On June 15th, Pepys wrote:
“The town grows very sickly, and people are afraid of it.”
Pepys had the necessary money and political connections to get a health certificate to flee London during the plague, but he did not do so. However, very many of the city’s wealthy did leave including Charles II whose court left on June 29th. The Rev. Dr. Thomas Vincent wrote that as he walked the streets of London in the summer of 1665, he saw few rich men and even fewer women from wealthy backgrounds. On June 22nd, Pepys sent his mother to the countryside and his wife Elizabeth followed on July 5th.
On August 30th Pepys made a note in his diary that a clerk he met was failing to accurately record the number of deaths in his parish. A clerk called Hadley told Pepys that nine people had died in one week in his parish but that he had only recorded six names. Though the figures are very small, if such a practice was common throughout London, the number of deaths associated with the plague may well have been much higher. Just one day later, Pepys himself makes this claim when he wrote that the official death toll for the week including August 31st was 7,496 or which 6,102 were from the plague. However, Pepys believed that the true number of plague deaths was nearer 10,000 for the week and the figure was reduced as a result of the clerks being overwhelmed by statistics. Over 100 years later a writer called Noorthouck wrote that Quakers and Jews had their own burial grounds and were not included in the official figures, but that logic dictated their both groups suffered badly from the plague and that the official figure should have been a lot higher if all groups were included.
On August 16th Pepys wrote:
“To the Exchange, where I have not been a great while. But, ‘Lord!’ how sad a sight it is to see streets empty of people. Jealous of every door that one sees shut, lest it should be the plague, and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.”
Having written in detail about the plague, in the entry for September 3rd, Pepys diverts somewhat. He still wrote about the plague but referred it to what would be in fashion the plague had died out. His particular concern was purchasing a new wig (periwig) but not wearing it out of fear that it may have been made out of the hair of someone who had died of plague. Pepys believed that many would also share his fear and that the periwig would cease to be fashionable.
As the plague reached its peak in September, Pepys wrote that one of the saddest sights he saw was the lack of boats on the River Thames as it told him that the plague was getting worse and worse.
By October 26th, Pepys had detected a change in London. He wrote that it was obvious that the number of deaths was decreasing and that the population was getting more and more lively. However, he also wrote that many shops remained shut. On November 22nd, Pepys noted in his diary that there had been a harsh frost during the night and this filled him with hope. Though he would not have known that fleas caused the disease and that the cold would have killed the rats, it was assumed that cold was associated with a decrease in the plague.