Plague had been around in England for centuries but in 1665 the so-called Great Plague hit the country – though it was Stuart London that took the worst of the plague. The plague was only finally brought under control in 1666 when the Great Fire of London burned down the areas most affected by plague – the city slums inhabited by the poor. Stuart England was never free from the plague but 1665 saw the worst.
1665 had experienced a very hot summer. London’s population had continued to grow and many lived in squalor and poverty. The only way people had to get rid of rubbish was to throw it out into the streets. This would include normal household waste as well as human waste. As a result, London was filthy. But this was a perfect breeding place for rats. A popular belief during the plague was that the disease was caused by dogs and cats. This was not so. The plague was caused by disease-carrying fleas carried on the bodies of rats. A pair of rats in the perfect environment could breed many off-spring. The filth found in the streets of London provided the perfect environment for rats.
Not surprisingly, the first victims of the plague were found in the poorer districts of the city. The cramped living conditions these people lived in, and the fact that so many actually lived in the slum areas of London, meant that many people could not avoid contact with either the rats or someone who had the disease.
What were the symptoms of the plague?
This is best summed up in a popular nursery rhyme of the time:
The first comment in the poem was a reference to red circular blotches that were found on the skin. These could also develop into large pus filled sacs found primarily under the armpits and in the groin. These buboes were very painful to the sufferer.
The second line refers to the belief that the plague was spread by a cloud of poisonous gas that was colourless (known as a miasma). This miasma could only be stopped, so it was believed, if you carried flowers with you as the smell of the flowers would overpower the germs carried by the miasma. There was also another ‘benefit’ to carrying sweet smelling flowers. A victim’s breath started to go off as the disease got worse. The flowers perfume would have covered up this unpleasantness.
The final symptom was a sneezing fit that was promptly followed by death. Some of the victims did not get as far as this stage presumably as their lives were so poor that their bodies were even less able to cope with the disease. For some, a swift death was merciful.
Once the disease took a hold it spread with frightening speed. Those who could, the wealthy, left London for the comparative safety of the countryside. No such option existed for those who lived in the slums. In fact, militiamen were paid by the city’s council to guard the parish boundaries of the area they lived in and to let no one out unless they had a certificate to leave from their local parish leader. Very few of these certificates were issued.
The poor were very badly hit by the plague. The authorities in London decided on drastic action to ensure that the plague did not spread.
Any family that had one member infected by the plague was locked in their home for forty days and nights. A red cross was painted on the door to warn others of the plight of those in the house. No one was allowed in except ‘nurses’.
The ‘nurses’ were local women with no training whatsoever but they got paid to visit the homes of plague victims to see how they were getting on and to take food to them if the victims could afford to pay for it. Samuel Pepys, a diarist who lived in London at this time, condemned the work done by these ‘nurses’. He claimed that they used the opportunities presented to them to steal from the homes they visited. One of his close friends at this time was Nathaniel Hodges – a qualified doctor who helped plague victims. It is possible that Pepys got such information from him.
Those who assessed whether someone had the plague or not, were called plague doctors. None of these were qualified physicians as most real doctors had fled the city for their own safety. However, their decision was final and would result in your home being chained shut from the outside and the red cross being painted on your door.
Londoners were also paid to kill dogs and cats as it was assumed that these spread the disease.
Cures for the plague were pointless but sought after if someone had the money to pay for them. Nathaniel Hodges believed that sweating out the disease was a sound approach and he encouraged those victims he came across to burn anything they could to create heat and smoke. In view of the fact that Londoners lived in wooden houses then, this was not particularly sound advice even from a proper doctor. However, many were desperate to try anything.
The plague was at its worst in September 1665 when the heat of the summer was at its peak. Each parish in London had to produce a week-by-week Bill of Mortality for the authorities. For every parish in London, the biggest weekly killer was plague – no other disease came anywhere near it.
A Bill of Mortality
The approaching winter halted the spread of the disease as the weather took its toll on the rats and fleas. However, though the worst had passed by the end of 1665, the end of the plague as a major killer only occurred with the Great Fire of London – the city’s second tragedy in two years. The fire devastated the filthy city areas where rats had prospered. The rebuilt London was more spacious and open. Never again was the city going to be affected so badly by this disease.
Some entries into the diary of Samuel Pepys: