The Great Plague of London

in my last post I described the poor living conditions of the ordinary working people of London in the 17th century. Unsurprisingly, the overcrowding and lack of sanitation made the city a fertile breeding ground for viruses and epidemics.

London suffered from regular outbreaks of plague. The most severe was in 1665-6 and was known as the Great Plague of London. It was the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in England. It’s interesting to reflect on this period as we tackle our own ‘plague’ in 2020.

The earliest cases of disease occurred in the spring of 1665 in a parish outside the city walls called St Giles-in-the-Fields. The death rate began to rise during the hot summer months and peaked in September when 7,165 Londoners died in one week.

Anyone who could afford to, fled the city. This included the royal family, as well as most doctors and other professionals. Parliament was postponed and court cases were moved from London to Oxford.

The plague ravaged the poorer areas. The infected were severely quarantined. Their houses were sealed off from outside and marked with a red cross. The inhabitants were forbidden to leave for 40 days, unable to work or feed themselves. The parish provided simple food. At night, bodies were collected from the houses and buried in ‘plague pits’ outside the city walls. In 18 months, the Great Plague killed an estimated 100,000 people—almost a quarter of London’s population.

There are no online records for Tickells or Tickles for this period so it’s not possible to say whether the families were affected by the Great Plague. The only potentially relevant record I have come across is for a marriage for a William Tickhill to Elizabeth Belchamber in Middlesex on 25 Oct 1677.

We know now that the bubonic plague was transmitted by rat fleas. Rats were attracted by the rubbish and waste in the city streets, especially in the poorest areas. At the time, the blame was put on a number of other things, including household pets. The Lord Mayor of London ordered them to be killed, leading to the massacre of around 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats.

The image below shows the rules imposed to try to prevent the spread of the plague. A transcript follows..


To be observed by all Justices of Peace, Mayors, Bayliffs, and other Officers,
for prevention of the spreading of the Infection of the PLAGUE.

Published by His Majesties Special Command. ..
[Orders 1-5 say that no stranger was allowed to enter a town unless they had a certificate of health. No furniture was to be removed from an infected house. There were to be no public gatherings such as funerals and all houses were to be kept clean.]

… …

6.    That Fires in moveable Pans, or otherwise, be made in all necessary publique [public] Meetings in Churches, &c. and convenient Fumes to correct the Air be burnt thereon.
7.    That care be taken that no unwholsom Meats, stinking Fish, Flesh, musty Corn, or any other unwholesome Food be exposed to sale in any Shops or Markets.
8.    That no Swine, Dogs, Cats or tame Pigeons be permitted to pass up and down in Streets, or from house to house, in places Infected.
9.    That the Laws against Inn-Mates be forthwith put in strict execution, and that no more Alehouses be Licensed then are absolutely necessary in each City or place, especially during the continuance of this present Contagion.
10.    That each City and Town forthwith provide some convenient place remote from the same, where a pest-house, huts, or sheds may be erected, to be in readiness in case any Infection should break out; which if it shall happen to do, That able and faithful Searchers and Examiners be forthwith provided and Sworn to Search all suspected bodies, for the usual signs of the plague, viz. Swellings or Risings under the Ears or Arm-pits, or upon the Groynes [groin]; Blains, Carbuncles, or little Spots, either on the Breast or back, commonly called Tokens.
11.    That if any House be Infected, the sick person or persons be forthwith removed to the said pest-house, sheds, or huts, for the preservation of the rest of the Family: And that such house (though none be dead therein) be shut up for fourty days, and have a Red Cross, and Lord have mercy upon us, in Capital Letters affixed on the door, and Warders appointed, as well to find them necessaries, as to keep them from conversing with the sound.
12.    That at the opening of each Infected house (after the expiration of the said Fourty Days) a White Cross be affixed on the said door, there to remain Twenty days more; during which time, or at least before any stranger be suffered to lodge therein, That the said house be well Fumed, Washed and Whited all over within with Lime; And that no Clothes, or Householdstuff be removed out of the said house into any other house, for at least Three months after, unless the persons so Infected have occasion to change their habitation.
13.    That none dying of the Plague be buried in Churches, or Church-yards (unless they be large, and then to have a place assigned for that use (where other bodies are not usually buried) Boarded or Paled in Ten foot high) but in some other convenient places, and that a good quantity of unslakt Lime be put into the Graves with such bodies, and that such Graves be not after opened within the space of a year or more, less they infect others.
14.    That in case any City, Burrough, Town or Village be so visited and Infected, that it is not able to maintain its own poor, That then a Rate be forthwith made by the adjoining Justices of the Peace, and confirmed at the very next Quarter Sessions, for that use, upon the neighbouring Parishes, according to the Statute 1 Jacobi [James 1], so that such visited poor may have sufficient Relief; want and nastiness being great occasions of the Infection.
15.    That you your selves use your utmost endeavours, not only to see these Directions punctually observed, and be in a readiness to render an Accomt [Account] as often as you shall be required, but that you strictly enjoyn all high Constables, petty Constables, Headburroughs and other Officers, to execute their respective Duties according to their places; and if any shall fail herein, to use the utmost severity against them according to Law.

What relates to Physitians, Chysurgeons, and such other persons as are necessary for the preservation and help of such who shall be Infected, the same is left to your particular care and direction.

Lastly, That you take special care, that not onely [only] the Monethly Fasts, but that the publique prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays also, be strictly and constantly observed according to his Majesties Proclamation; And that such Collections as shall be then made, be strictly applied to the relief and necessities of the poor in Infected places, by which means God may be inclined to remove his severe hand both from amongst you and us.

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