Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Great Plague of 1665

Yet another plague, but of course, that’s what The Plaguemaker is all about! The Great Plague was, surprisingly, not as bad as the Black Death of 1347, but it still managed to kill 100,000 people in London. It was also equally gruesome, and given the swift evacuation of the wealthy from the cities again, the poor were once again left to deal with the consequences of the illness and decay.

King Charles promptly left for his estate in the countryside, the higher classes followed suit. Even the doctors left London in fear of contracting the disease. Ironically, the medical profession felt they were qualified to write books and articles on the plague, even though they weren’t witnessing it first hand, and much of their anecdotal evidence was hearsay from servants or friends.

Unfortunately, the 17th century saw the plague hit the UK more than once. The number of plague deaths went up and down in waves. Over 30,000 people were killed in 1603, but the next year it went down to 896. In 1609, over 4,000 people died, but in 1610, it went down to 1,800. Over 41,000 people died in 1625, and over 10,000 in 1636.

And what happened to those who were unfortunate to contract the plague? If you thought compassion and assistance would come your way, you’d be wrong. Once the plague was known to have entered your home, the house and its inhabitants would immediately in lockdown. The incubation period for an entire family was around four to six days, so if one member of your family contracted the illness, and you were promptly banged up with them, it was extremely likely you would contract the plague within a short space of time. Worse still, the whole of London would also know that your house was infected because a large red cross would be painted across the door, with the words 'Lord have mercy on us' added for effect. There was no hiding from the vile disease.

The plague of 1665 was made worse because London was experiencing a very hot summer. And with no real sewage or disposal system, rubbish would be left all over the streets for the rats to get their teeth into. Rats brought the fleas and spread the disease, but the disease ridden fleas were also clinging on to other animals such as dogs and cats. This lack of hygiene is thought to be the major reason behind the surge of infected people during this time.

So was there anyone left to tend to the sick? As all the medical professionals had fled the city, volunteers came forward to aid the sick. Local women became nurses, but only in the sense that they checked up on people who were known to have had the plague and, if the patients could afford it, buy them food.

Obviously, people were desperate to leave London. But the only way to leave the city during the plague was to get a certificate of health. Naturally, with so many people after this vital document, a number of people began to sell forgeries. Even if you managed to get yourself out of London, life in the country was no picnic either, because of the threat of illness to country residents. So those people who were able to make it out of London were treated to a systematic regime of scraping, heating, soaking, airing, and pressing ‘flat’ to ‘eliminate "pestilential matter".'

The most reliable source of the time, Samuel Pepys, wrote many diary entries, including: "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 that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw." (June 17th 1665);
"To the office to finish my letters, and then home to bed - being troubled at the sickness, and my head filled also with other business enough, and perticularly how to put my things and estate in order, in case it should please God to call me away - which God dispose of to his own glory." (June 10th 1665);
"But now, how few people I see, and those walking like people that have taken leave of the world.... I to the Exchange, and I think there was not 50 people upon it and but few more like to be, as they told me, Sir G Smith and others. Thus I think to take Adieu today of London streets ...." (August 28th 1665).

NEXT TIME: The Great Plague, Science and Medicine

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