I am sure that you have been told that the old Nursery Rhyme,
"Ring a-ring a-Roses,
A pocketful of posies,
We all fall down!'
comes to us across the centuries from the year of the Great Plague.
A rosy-red rash and sneezing were indications of the infection, posies of herbs were carried for protection, and 'all fall down' is what thousands of Londoners did that year.
Seventeenth-century London had a population of 460,000 people, all crammed into closely-packed streets with minimal sewage facilities.
Any infectious diseases would spread unchecked.
The city was dirty and the air polluted with smoke from fires and vapours from the filthy Thames.
In 1661 John Evelyn, the diarist,(picture later) wrote:'That this Glorious and Antient City..should wrap her stately head in Clowds of Smoake and Sulphur, so full of stink and Darknesse, I deplore with just Indignation.'
John Graunt, a Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote: 'London, the Metropolis of England, is perhaps a Head too big for the Body.....the houses are unfit for the present frequency of coaches.'
Daniel Defoe, who wrote 'A Journal of the Plague Year.' was in fact only five when the Plague came to London, but he describes two comets which passed over the city months before the plague and fire which decimated London and its population in 1665 and 16666, and according to many foretold the disasters which followed.
The first comet, he writes,' was of a faint, languid colour, and its motion very heavy, solemn and slow, and accordingly foretold a heavy judgement, slow but severe, terrible and frightful, as was the plague'.
The plague began in the bitter winter of 1664 - 5, when England was at war with Holland.
Since its progress was at first slow, and it affected only the poor folk on the outskirts of London, it did not at first cause much concern, although older people, who remembered the outbreak 40 years before, were aware that summer temperatures could speed up the spread of infection.
In St. Giles-in-the-Fields houses were closed up and red crosses painted on the doors.
People began to wear charms, sold by pedlars, to protect themselves; one of the most popular had ABRACADABRA arranged in a triangle,thus:
By the first months of 1665, the Plague seemed to have somewhat abated, although Clarendon wrote,
"though it was a considerable abatement from the height it had been at, yet there still died between three and four thousand in the week."
Charles II and his council were in Oxford, but travelled to Hampton Court for a few days to deal with necessary State business,and after a period of deep snow and frost decided to return to Whitehall.
As the weather grew warmer,the mortality bills showed an increasing number of deaths, but these were not always accurate, partly because they were occasionally falsified in order to allay fears, but also because of the frequent deaths of clerks and sextons, and because the deaths of Quakers and other nonconformists were not counted in the official rolls.
Such folk were not buried in churchyards with the 'faithful.'
Clarendon wrote: " a vast number were buried in the fields, of whom no account was kept.
Then of the anabaptists and other sectaries, who abounded in the city, multitudes of them died, whereof no officer had notice: but they found burials according to their own fancy, in small gardens or the next fields."
On 7th June Pepys wrote:
"This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and 'Lord have Mercy' writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw."
On 21st June he wrote: "To the Cross Keys at Cripplegate, where I find all the towne almost going out of towne, the coaches and wagons being all full of people going into the country."
Sadly, often people trying to escape the Plague were not welcomed in the villages for fear of infection; often the constable would put their goods out into the street and they would have to move further on.
Defoe wrote that people were especially afraid of catching the plague when buying food; "When anyone bought a joint of meat in the market they would not take it from the butcher's hand, but took it off the hooks themselves.
On the other hand, the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose.
The buyer carried always small money to make up any odd sum, that they might take no change."
He also told of the elaborate precautions taken by an inn-keeper in picking up a lost purse, which might have belonged to someone who had caught the Plague:
"So he went in and fetched a pail of water, and set it down hard by the purse, then went again and fetched some gunpowder, and cast a good deal of powder upon the purse, and then made a train from that which he had thrown loose upon the purse.
The train reached about two yards.
After this he goes in a third time and fetches out a pair of tongs red hot, and which he had prepared,I suppose, on purpose, and first setting fire to the train of powder, that singed the purse, and and also smoked the air sufficiently.
But he was not content with that, but he then takes up the purse with the tongs, holding it so long till the tongs burnt through the purse, and then he shook the money out into the pail of water, so he carried it in.
The money, as I remember, was about thirteen shillings and some smooth groats and brass farthings."
At its height the Plague was responsible for thousands of deaths, and the churchyards were inadequate for burials; mass grave pits large and deep enough to take hundreds of bodies were dug, and carts, each with a bellman, would patrol the streets to collect the bodies.
Jonn Evelyn the diarist kept detailed notes at the time.
He recorded the figures in Midsummer of that year:
"On 16th July: There died of the Plague in London this weeke 1,100, and the weeke following above 2,000.
On 8th August: Died this week in London 4,000.
On 15th August: there perished this week 5,000."
At the time, there was no knowledge of the connection between fleas ( carried by rats ) and the infection, and 'remedies' were many and various.
Here are some recommended cures:
'Take a Pigeon and plucke the feathers off her taile, very dare, and set her taile to the sore, and shee will draw out the venom till she die; then take another and set too likewise,continuing so till all the venome be drawn out, which you shall see by the pigeons, for they will die wth the venome as long as there is any: also a chicken or henne is very good.'
The College of Physicians recommended this:
'Take a great onion, hollow it, put into it a fig, rue cut small, and a dram of Venice treacle; put it close stopt in wet paper, and roast it in the embers; apply it hot unto the tumour; lay three or four, one after another: let one lie three hours.'
On the last day of August Pepys recorded the death that week in the city of 6,102 people.
He added, that the true toll was feared to be nearer 10,000.
In September, by order of the Lord Mayor, bonfires were lit in every street, and kept alight for four or five days.
Here is the death cart.
The men are smoking to ward off infection.
As the autumn weather set in, little by little the death toll reduced, and by December both Pepys and Evelyn recorded the return of many families to London.
On 5th January,1666, Pepys wrote;"What a delightfull thing it is to see the towne full of people again as now it is; and shops begin to open, although in many places seven and eight and more together all shut, but the towne is full compared with what it used to be..."
Baxter estimated the number that died that year in London to be "about an hundred thousand, reckoning the Quakers and others, that were never put in the bills of mortality, with those that were in the bills."
Dr. Gumble, who saw all the bills of mortality sent to Albermarle, thought that as many died again, when the Plague spread to the rest of England: "This Judgment the next year took its circuit, and visited many great Cities and Towns in the Nation, so that in 1665 and 1666 there died about two hundred thousand persons of men, women and children of the pestilence, which was a visitation beyond any formerly in this Nation; and I hope and pray that God will never send the like, and that we nor our Posterity after us may never feel such another Judgment."
Breughel painted this picture of the plague scene.