Great Plague of London

pandemic lasting from 1665 to 1666, last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England

During the Great Plague of London (1665-1666), the disease called the bubonic plague killed about 200,000 people in London, England.[1] In seven months, almost one quarter of London's population (one out of every four Londoners) died from the plague. At its worst, in September 1665, the plague killed 7,165 people in one week.[1] After this, the number of people dying from the plague began to slow down.

The Great Plague of London
Collecting the dead for burial during the Great Plague
DiseaseBubonic plague epidemic
Spread byFleas who bit infected rats,
then bit people
DeathsAbout 200,000 (1/4 of London's population.[1]
Killed more of England's population than
World War I or World War II.[2][3][4]

Around September 1666, the great outbreak ended. The Great Fire of London, which happened on 2-6 September 1666, may have helped end the outbreak by killing many of the rats and fleas who were spreading the plague.

Though most of the people who died during the Great Plague lived in London, the plague also killed people in other areas of England. By the time the Great Plague ended, about 2.5% of England's population had died from the plague.[2] To compare, about 2% of the entire United Kingdom's population (including soldiers and civilians) died in World War I,[3] and about 1% of the entire United Kingdom's population died in World War II.[4]

Outbreak change

The Great Plague of 1665 was the last major plague in England. Before the Great Plague, England had had outbreaks of plague and so many people got the disease every few decades:[5]

  • The 1603 plague killed 30,000 Londoners.
  • The 1625 plague killed about 35,000 people.
  • The 1636 plague killed about 10,000 people.

Historians think that the plague spread to England from the Netherlands. Dutch trading ships carrying cotton from Amsterdam may have brought the plague to England. Amsterdam was badly hit by the plague in 1663–1664; the disease killed about 50,000 people.[6]

In London, the first places hit by the plague were the dock areas outside of the city and the parish of St Giles in the Fields. In those places, poor workers lived crowded together in bad conditions. Nobody kept records about the deaths of very poor people and so nobody knows how many of these people may have died from the plague. However, records say the first person to die of the plague in London was Rebecca Andrews on 12 April 1665.[7]

London change

A bill of mortality showing the number of plague deaths in one week in 1665.

By July 1665, plague was in the City of London itself. Many of the people who could afford to leave the city left for the countryside. King Charles II of England, his family, and his court left the city for Oxfordshire. Most wealthy merchants and professionals left the city and so most businesses were closed. As the plague got worse, more and more people left. London became so empty that grass started to grow on the streets.[8]

However, most of the city's government officials stayed in London such as the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Lawrence. As the plague got worse, more and more people left, but a small number of clergymen, physicians and apothecaries chose to stay. Also, people who were too poor to move to the countryside had no choice but to stay in the city.[8]

Some of the people who stayed in London wrote about the Great Plague. Samuel Pepys, who lived through the plague, kept a diary which gave historians information about what the plague was like. Henry Foe, a saddler who lived in East London, also decided not to leave the city. Years later, in 1722, Foe's nephew Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, a story about the plague that he may have based on Foe's journals.

Reactions change

People in London tried many different things to try to treat the plague and stop it from spreading. At the time, nobody understood what caused the plague, how it spread, or how to treat it.[9]p. 42 Antibiotic medications, which are the only treatment for plague, would not be discovered for another 300 years. People were so afraid of catching the plague from other people that they threw dead plague victims' bodies into overcrowded pits and buried them all together as quickly as possible. In one parish in London, 1,114 dead plague victims were buried together in a hole that was fifty feet long and twenty feet wide.[9]pp. 174–175

As the plague got worse, people began to do worse things. Some people refused to help sick family members. Other people forced sick servants to leave even though they had nowhere to go.[8] Eventually, if one person in a home got the plague, the whole family was forced to stay in the home. A red cross and the words "Lord have mercy upon us" would be painted on the door.[1] Pepys wrote in his diary: "the plague [is] making us cruel as dogs to one another."[8]

Government officials tried several public health programs to prevent more people from getting the plague. For example:

"Plague doctor" in costume. Engraving by Paul Fürst, 1656.
  • They hired doctors.
  • They ordered fires to be kept burning night and day In the hope of cleaning the air.[9]pp. 166–169 Things that gave off strong smells like pepper, hops, or frankincense were also burned.
  • They made it illegal to go to theatres, football games, and other group entertainment activities so that people would not spread the plague to one another.[1]
  • They urged people to smoke tobacco because IT was thought to prevent he plague.[2]
  • Because people thought that animals might spread the plague, government officials ordered for stray dogs and cats to be killed.[10] About 40,000 dogs and about 200,000 cats were killed.[1] That was a bad decision since those animals, mostly the cats, helped control the population of rats, which carried fleas, which spread the plague.

"Plague doctors" walked the streets diagnosing victims, but many of them were not actual doctors. Wearing special costumes, they tried to treat plague victims with bloodletting, frogs, and leeches.[11]

The plague was worst in London, but it also affected other parts of England. Perhaps the most famous example was the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. Nobody knows for sure how the plague got to Eyam. However, stories say that a merchant carrying cloth from London accidentally brought the plague with him. The villagers quarantined themselves (kept themselves apart from other people and other villages) to make sure the disease would not spread any further. That kept the plague from spreading outside Eyam, but about 80% of the people in the village had died from the plague within a little over a year.[12]

Dies out change

As time went on, more and more people died from the plague. That continued until the week of 19-26 September 1665, the worst week of the Great Plague, when 7,166 people died from the plague.[1] The number of deaths from the plague then began to slow down. By February 1666, the King and his court decided it was safe enough to return to London.

Some people but not nearly as many as before continued to get the plague until September 1666. Around that time, the plague outbreak ended. The Great Fire of London is believed to have helped to end the plague.

References change

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 "The Great Plague of 1665". The Museum of London. 2011. Retrieved January 28, 2016.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Porter, Stephen (2009). The Great Plague. Amberley Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84868-087-6.
  3. 3.0 3.1 The War Office (1922). Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War (Report). The War Office. p. 339. Archived from the original on March 24, 2016. Retrieved January 28, 2016.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Commonwealth War Graves Commission (2015). Commonwealth War Graves Commission Annual Report 2013-2014 (Report). Commonwealth War Graves Commission. p. 44.
  5. Porter, Stephen (2001). "17th Century: Plague". Gresham College. Retrieved 2014-07-28.
  6. "Social, economic, and political impacts of the plague on Eurasia and Africa". New York State Education Department Global History & Geography Online Resource Guide. New York State Education Department. 2008. Archived from the original on 2016-01-06. Retrieved 2016-01-29.
  7. "The Great Plague 1665-66". Inside Guide to London. 2015. Archived from the original on June 25, 2013. Retrieved January 28, 2016.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 "What effect did the Great Plague have on Londoners' lives?". The Museum of London. 2011. Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Leasor, James (1962). The Plague and the Fire. London: George Allen and Unwin. ISBN 978-0-7551-0040-8.
  10. Moote, A. Lloyd; Moote, Dorothy C. (2004). The Great Plague: the story of London's most deadly year. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0801884931.
  11. Byfield, Ted (2010). Renaissance: God in Man, A.D. 1300 to 1500: but amid its splendors, night falls on medieval Christianity. Christian History Project. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-9689873-8-4.
  12. Coleman, Michel P. (1986). "A plague epidemic in voluntary quarantine". International Journal of Epidemiology. 15 (3): 379–385. doi:10.1093/ije/15.3.379. PMID 3533810.