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The Plagues Of Old London

March 23, 2020
by Gillian Tindall

Distinguished historian Gillian Tindall sent me this fascinating history of the Plague in London from her self-isolation

‘Bring Out Your Dead,’ A Street in London 1665, by Edmund Evans, 1864

Inhabitants of modern developed countries too easily lose sight of the essential fragility of human life. If you are fortunate enough to live in a society with a decent health service, effective drugs readily available and an average life-expectancy well beyond the Biblical three-score years and ten, you may accept this state of affairs as normal. Until just recently …

Yet our ancestors, for centuries and centuries, knew better – or perhaps I should say ‘knew worse’ ? Their common experience was that life was fragile and easily destroyed. Epidemics of fatal sickness were not exceptional events of once a century but frequent scourges lasting years, better at one time then suddenly worse at another, and never really going away.

So much was made of the Black Death of the fourteenth century by chroniclers a generation later that their estimates of how many died, in London and elsewhere, are now believed to have been exaggerated for dramatic effect. What is more significant is that the Bubonic Plague stayed around for the next three centuries. Consequently, the history of London through the Tudor period and into the Stuarts’ had a great many ‘plague years’.

Nor was this plague the only major affliction. A ‘sweating sickness’ appeared which no one today has yet satisfactorily identified. Dean Colet, the founder of St Paul’s School, died of it in 1519 in the midst of an otherwise healthy life – though this might, in retrospect, have been a blessing. Colet’s younger friend Thomas More, sharing the same religious and political views, was beheaded fifteen years later for disagreeing with Henry VIII. The sweating sickness appears to have disappeared by the following century as mysteriously as it had come. Malaria which had been an endemic nuisance and destroyer of health, as it still is in some parts of the world today, also declined, probably because many of the mosquito-haunted marshes and fens were drained.

But Bubonic Plague returned to London, on a regular basis, in the troubled times of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, finally reaching its zenith in the Great Plague of 1665, which has become our bench-mark for all other epidemics.

Recently, a neighbour of mine, contemplating the notion of social isolation, emailed me, saying `Our niece has just brought us some soup! She never normally visits us. Do you think that if we painted “Lord have mercy upon us” on the front door other people would bring us free food?’

In the Great Plague, whole households were shut up to die together because the infection was believed to be airborne. There was indeed an airborne version of pastorella pestis and the earlier Black Death may have been that, but it is now evident that the Great Plague was a visitation of the common plague, passed by the fleas, lice, rats and mice that lived in close proximity with Londoners. The angry inhabitant who declared ‘As soon as any house is infected, all the sound people should be out of it and not shut up therein to be murdered,’ actually got it right.

The illusion that Plague was transmitted from person-to-person has created myths of heroism, in particular relating to the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. Although it was understood at the time that the Plague arrived in flea-infested cloth ordered from London by a tailor, the wrong conclusion was drawn. When the tailor’s assistant became ill, not only were his family shut up to die but the entire village as well. Encouraged by a high-minded Vicar,  they incarcerated themselves, thinking to save the neighbouring villages. As a result, over half – or possibly more- of the population of Eyam died.

Yet almost everywhere else in country districts the Plague died out quickly – a natural consequence, as we now recognise, of people living in less-crowded and less-infested conditions. In the summer of 1665, a stonemason who had been working in London, rode home to his village in the Cotswolds with the Plague upon him. He died and so did the rest of his immediate household.  Their deaths are marked ‘plague’ in the burial register but no one else died in the parish that August, except for one very old man.

Meanwhile in London, a few intelligent and observant people got the message. In the parish of St Giles in the Fields where the Plague first manifested itself (infested cloth again, from Rotterdam), William Boghurst, a local apothecary, stayed on duty throughout, ministering to his customers. As he wrote later in his book on the sickness (entitled Loimographia but actually quite readable), he had been at bedsides taking pulses and blood, holding up the choking and dying, even dressing sores. Like the doctors and surgeons far grander than he, he had no cure to administer yet he remained plague-free himself, having accurately recognised the conditions that exacerbated the problem as –

‘thickness of inhabitants, those living as many families in a house, living in cellars, want of fitting accommodations as good fires, good dyett, washing, want of all good conveyances of filth, standing and stinking waters, dung hills, excrements, dead bodies lying unburied and putrefying, churchyards too full crammed …’

He added, ‘exceptionally hot weather,’ and remarked how there had been, ‘such a multitude of flies that they lined the insides of the houses… and swarms of ants covered the highways.’

Boghurst’s remedy? He advocated keeping a clean house, disposing of human waste at a distance, consuming only the freshest meat and milk, and being particularly careful about clean water. More than two centuries before it was generally accepted that diseases came from microscopic organisms, he was already practising the correct methods. He was also in favour of eating fresh fruit and vegetables, of which many of his contemporaries were unaccountably wary. He was also, beyond any doubt, a great advocate of hand-washing.

(The Dance of Death that follows is by Luke Clennell 1825)

The Desolation

The Queen

The Pope

The Cardinal

The Elector

The Canon

The Canoness

The Priest

The Mendicant Friar

The Councillor or Magistrate

The Astrologer

The Physician

The Merchant

The Wreck

The Swiss Soldier

The Charioteer or Waggoner

The Porter

The Fool

The Miser

The Gamesters

The Drunkards

The Beggar

The Thief

The Newly Married Pair

The Husband

The Wife

The Child

The Old Man

The Old Woman

Gillian Tindall’s new book The Pulse Glass and the Beat of Other Hearts is published by Chatto & Windus 

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall

The Bones of Old London

Wenceslaus Hollar At Old St Paul’s

Memories of Ship Tavern Passage

Gillian Tindall’s Wartime Memories

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Celt permalink
    March 23, 2020

    William Boghurst sounds like an interesting, intelligent man.

  2. March 23, 2020

    Keeping things in perspective dear Gentle Author in your own inimitable way: thank you for sharing the story of William Boghurst: what a remarkable and wise man.

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 23, 2020

    A very timely reminder of how fragile life was in the past, and of how spoilt we have become in recent years with our free health service, effective drugs, clean homes, plentiful food etc.

    Having said that – stay safe everyone!

  4. John Grimsey permalink
    March 23, 2020

    Very cheerful.

  5. Walter Braun permalink
    March 23, 2020

    Brilliant article, fantastic pictures.
    Will teach those who take the luxuries of fun society for granted that their age was the rare exception, not the imagined norm. A great re-setting is completely unavoidable, not just in economic terms, even more so in overcooked expectations, treating life as a pleasure park.
    Perhaps the recently revived Stoicism will find new friends now, when the age of decadence begins to close down!?

  6. March 23, 2020

    Great article. Thank you. And magnificent etchings.

  7. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 23, 2020

    Thank you GA and Gillian. What a wise man William Boghurst was and, amazingly, his remedies, almost word for word, are exactly what a delightful African lady said to me last week. She grew up in Nigeria, where they have to live with unpleasant illnesses all the time, and they know how important it is to follow his advice. and especially the advice to wash your hands. I am following it.

  8. paul loften permalink
    March 23, 2020

    A huge thank you for keeping us occupied with your very appropriate and interesting history of this terrible disease and how the people endured and overcame their suffering. I am sure all of us will not forget that it is not an easy task to maintain this daily blog under the present circumstances.
    You mentioned a few intelligent and observant people. Perhaps in today’s world of mass communication of twitter and Facebook, we are drowned with far too many observations and can no longer apply the intelligence that is so badly needed. Our memories, especially the younger generation, are largely confined to what is available online without realizing that human knowledge far exceeds this.
    Observations that were taken by doctors and scientists in the past that were very effective in healing the sick that suffered a multitude of illnesses can be very easily forgotten. For example, My mother recounted to me when they were tarring the road in Flower and Dean Street and the tar machine arrived, all the children that were suffering from whooping cough and other chest ailments in the building were taken by their parents to line up on the road by the side of the tar machine. It was a sight to be seen all the children warmly wrapped up deeply inhaling and exhaling the steam that was emitted from the machine. Of course, this was done on the doctor’s advice and was quite effective in helping the children in getting over their chest infections.

  9. paul loften permalink
    March 23, 2020

    I should have also thanked Gillian Tindall for this story

  10. March 23, 2020

    History shows our Pains As Well.?❤?

  11. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 23, 2020

    Paul Loften has reminded me, we had to inhale the steam from a mixture of hot water and Friars Balsam and very effective it was for coughs, colds, and other throat and chest infections. I wonder if anyone does that now? All it requires is a bowl and a thick towel worn over your head to keep the steam in. It has also occurred to me that the fact that many older people, including me, no long have their tonsils may be playing a part in the present pandemic as tonsils are the first in line in our immune system. I wish I still had mine to help to protect me but way back then having your tonsils out was almost a rite of passage.

  12. paul loften permalink
    March 23, 2020

    Pauline Taylor it may also interest you and also other readers of this blog to know that I once knew a Dr David Adler who was a senior consultant at the London Chest Hospital for many years. You may be familiar with the same hospital as the former home of the threatened mulberry tree. David after he retired as a doctor became chair of our local Labour Party branch during the Thatcher era and when I came down with a very bad chest infection advised me that the best course of treatment was to inhale steam even if I didn’t have an inhalent to add to the water. He dealt with cases including TB and pneumonia and was someone who I would have put my trust in with his many years of experience in dealing with chest infections. He would never take private patients and was dedicated to serving the NHS during his lifetime. If you google his name you won’t find him as he passed away in the 90’s

  13. March 24, 2020

    Interesting blog . The Plague has always fascinated me for some reason. This vile sickness is rather similar. Locking ourselves away,panic in the markets, death counts that treble daily.There was a small faction of society that had the fortitude to survive and continue on. We must all draw from the fortitude shown by those ancient people and do our best to keep ourselves healthy,keep in close contact with our loved ones and our neighbors especially the elderly.These are dark days,but together,we can survive . EVERYONE…please stay healthy.with much love from Virginia US.

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