The Deadliest Year | 17th Century

It’s one of the most terrible events in the history of the capital – the onslaught of the Great Plague, which took hold around this time of year in 1665.

Above: A 17th century doctor in plague preventive costume (painted in 1910)

It’s one of the most terrible events in the history of the capital – the onslaught of the Great Plague, which took hold around this time of year in 1665. Nicola Avery, principal archivist at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell, reveals the grim story of the epidemic in our neighbourhood…

Three hundred and fifty years ago the Great Plague, a form of bubonic plague also known as the Black Death due to the swellings or ‘buboes’ that it caused, struck London. Thousands died; those who could, fled and the city effectively shut down. At night, ‘dead carts’ would do the rounds, accompanied by the cry “Bring out your dead!”. The cause of the disease was only discovered two centuries later – it was carried by fleas on rats that were rife in the filthy streets.

Records of the time, many of which have survived and are cared for by London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), give a vivid picture of the destruction wrought on the population of the city. Our knowledge is also enhanced by accounts of eyewitnesses, including Samuel Pepys in his diary, as well as the semi-fi ctional account written by Clerkenwell resident Daniel Defoe in his research-based A Journal of the Plague Year. These records give a sense of what life would have been like in Clerkenwell at the time.

The Great Plague, at its height in London from April until October 1665, was so–called because it was the last major outbreak to hit the country during a pandemic that had caused intermittent epidemics since 1347. The first deaths occurred in Holborn, in December 1664, and the infection spread to adjoining parishes, including Clerkenwell. These areas continued to be the worst hit as the epidemic raged.

Plague doctors could be identified by their ankle-length overcoat and beak mask

Many families whose loved ones had died of plague tried to conceal the truth, reporting that the deaths were of ‘spotted fever’ or other ailments. This was to avoid being shunned by neighbours and friends afraid of infection, but also in fear of their houses being shut up by the authorities. The Justices of the Peace for Middlesex, who had jurisdiction over Clerkenwell at the time, were instructed to have the houses of anyone showing signs of the disease locked up. A red cross was painted in the middle of the door as a warning to keep away and watchmen were placed outside the house to ensure no one escaped.

The watchmen were also responsible for providing food and medical supplies for those trapped inside. Each infected house remained shut for one month, after which it was deemed the inhabitants would either be dead or free from contagion. “The misery of those families is not to be expressed… we heard the most dismal shrieks and outcries of the poor people, terrified and even frighted to death by the sight of the condition of their dearest relations, and by the terror of being imprisoned as they were,” wrote Defoe.

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Above: An engraving from LMA’s print collection shows burial of victims of the Great Plague in Shoreditch

Many of those incarcerated in this way attempted to escape by unscrewing the locks of their doors while the watchmen were away buying them food or medicine, but the local justices became wise to this practice and ordered houses to be padlocked and bolted from the outside.

The Middlesex Justices laid down rules to try and stop the spread of the disease, all recorded in a book which survives at LMA. These included a ban on doctors who had been treating infected people from attending public functions, also stipulating that “they doe carry a white wand in their hands… that all persons may avoid them”. Plague doctors could also be identified by their protective outfit of ankle-length overcoat and beak mask, which was often filled with lavender.

Fear of infection forced thousands to fl ee the city to healthier parts of the country. The fear was justified; Bills of Mortality, which are held at LMA, chart the course of the disease as it spread like wildfire through the parishes of London. These bills were weekly-published statistics showing the number and causes of deaths in each parish. For the year 1665 the bills record a total of 68,500 plague deaths in London. In Clerkenwell alone the bills recorded 1,877 deaths in 1665, of which 1,377 were of plague.

The burial registers of St James, Clerkenwell, alsokept at LMA, continue the story. A count of the number of burials in the register for 1665 reveals 64 in May and June, rising to 229 in August and September before receding again to 60 in September and October. However, this register records only those buried in the churchyard. As the epidemic progressed, local burial grounds could not cope and plague pits were dug to deal with the huge number of deaths.

There are sometimes stark reminders of the toll that plague took in the capital through the centuries. In 2013, one of two plague pits dug for 14th century outbreaks of the disease was discovered at the edge of Charterhouse Square during excavations for the Crossrail project. The second pit is believed to be somewhere in Farringdon, its grim history waiting to be discovered.

There original archives of the Great Plague are available to read at LMA with a valid History Card obtainable free of charge. Open Mon-Thurs and one Saturday each month, 40 Northampton Road, EC1R 0HB.


One brave medic left an account of the contagion…

Nathaniel Hodges (1629-88) was a physician – rather than a less qualified plague doctor – who treated victims of the epidemic. He remained in residence in London and took anti-pestilential medicine for protection. When he visited a plague house he had disinfectant burnt on hot coals. Hodges twice feared he had become infected, but after increasing his intake of fortified wine he felt better. He prescribed drugs to bring on sweating, while condemning other treatments such as amulets, tobacco and – worst of all – dried human excrement that was applied to swellings. In 1672 his Loimologia was published and its observation of symptoms and treatments earned him membership of the College of Physicians. Hodges’s heroic account remains one of the best sources on the disease, but his story has a sad ending. Although not afflicted by the plague, he got into financial difficulty and died a debtor in Ludgate Prison.