The Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Lawrence, issued orders for the prevention of the spreading of the plague and these came into force on July 1st 1665. The so-called ‘Lord Mayor’s Orders’ (a collection of earlier orders issued in previous epidemics) had legal clout as he was one of the most senior men left in the city as so many had fled, including the king Charles II. The Lord Mayor’s Orders were introduced to stop the plague spreading more than it had done already but the statistics that historians have show that this did not happen. In the week before the Lord Mayor’s Orders were introduced 267 Londoners died. For the final week in July, when the orders had been in force for a month, 1843 Londoners died.
The ‘Orders for Health’ stated that examiners, watchmen and searchers had to be established in each parish.
“First, it is thought requisite and so ordered, that in every parish there to be one, tow or more persons of good sort and credit chosen and appointed by the Alderman, his deputy and Common Council of every ward, by the name of examiners, to continue in that office the space of two months at least. And if any fit person so appointed shall refuse to undertake the same, the said parties for refusing, to be committed to prison until they shall conform themselves accordingly.
That these examiners be sworn by the Alderman to enquire and learn from time to time what houses in every parish be visited and what persons be sick, and of what diseases, as near as they can inform themselves; and upon doubt in that case, to command restraint of access until it appear what the disease shall prove. And if they find any person sick of the infection, to give over to the Constable that the house be shut up, and if the Constable be found to be remiss or negligent, to give present notice thereof to the Alderman of the ward.
That to every infected house there be appointed two watchmen, one for the day and one for the night; and that these watchmen have a special care that no person goes in or out of such infected houses, whereof they have the charge, upon pain of further punishment. And the said watchmen to do such further offices as the sick house shall need and require; and if the watchman be sent upon any business, to lock up the house and take the key with him. And the watchman by day to attend until ten of the clock at night and the watchman by night until six in the morning.
That there be a special care, to appoint women searchers in every parish, such as are of honest reputation, and of the best sort as can be got in this kind. And these to be sworn to make due search and true report to the utmost of their knowledge, whether the persons, whose bodies they are appointed to search, do die of infection, or of what other diseases, as near as they can. And that the physicians who shall be appointed for cure and prevention of the infection, do call before them the said searchers who are or shall be appointed for the several parishes under their respective care, to the end they may consider whether they are fitly qualified for that employment.”
Men were also employed to kill cats and dogs. Figures from the time, suggest that as many as 40,000 dogs and 20,000 cats were killed. Taverns and inns were shut from 21.00 onwards and begging and street entertainment was stopped. The orders also stated that plague burials had to be between the hours of sunrise and sunset and that plague graves had to be at least six feet deep and that there had to be no public gatherings at such graves.
These orders had seemingly little impact on London as the number of deaths after they were issued rose markedly. However, it has been argued that the number of deaths could have been a lot worse if these orders had not been issued.
The main problem for the Lord Mayor was the sheer scale of the problem and the simple fact that his orders were so difficult to enforce. The two most obvious orders that were disobeyed were the shutting up of infected houses and the shutting of inns after 21.00. It was common for taverns and inns to remain open past this time as there were so few officials around who could enforce the law. People in houses they were shut up could simply break out despite the presence of watchmen. Writing some years after the 1665 plague outbreak, Daniel Defoe believed that between 18 and 20 watchmen were killed during escape attempts from the occupants of plague houses.
“One particular watchman was blown up by gunpowder, and while the poor fellow made hideous cries for help, the whole family escaped.” (Defoe)
Those who broke the orders were rarely caught or brought to justice simply because there were so few law enforcement officials around. The lack of enforcement probably accounted for more and more people side-stepping the orders.