Living with the Great Plague of 1665

London's response to its last plague epidemic involved close collaboration between crown, City and parish.

Great Plague London
Kitty Shannon's 1926 illustration of the Great Plague of London, 1665. Credit: Culture Club / Getty Images.

Should epidemic diseases be considered as natural disasters, or as events brought about by human actions or inactions? Are they so exceptional that they offer no insights into other situations, or do they shed useful light on social tensions, the robustness of governmental structures, embedded assumptions and beliefs?

The plague of 1665-6 was not the worst to strike Britain, but it has a prominent place in the cultural imaginary because it was the last plague, and because in London it was so swiftly followed by another cataclysm, the fire of 1666. The plague epidemic of May to December 1665 killed at least 70,000 Londoners; the fire of 2-6 September 1666 destroyed 4/5 of the city centre, incinerated hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of real estate and material goods, and made some 60,000 people homeless. The temporal coincidence is, strictly speaking, just that; but they had a profound effect on each other, and were linked in the minds of contemporaries and interpreted as part of a wider pattern.

1665 is also the best-recorded epidemic before the nineteenth century, thanks to accounts from eyewitnesses such as Samuel Pepys in London, and still more to the documentation generated by activity at all levels of government, from the parish to the Privy Council. However, the fire somewhat obscures our understanding of the plague: it is impossible to know how swiftly the city would have recovered socially or demographically from the trauma and losses of the epidemic, given the dispersal of its population and the disruption to economic activity in 1666, not to mention the loss of some relevant records.

When considering responses to the London plague of 1665, three themes stand out: the conflict between principle and pragmatism in the governmental response; the role played by communications; and the confusion of medical and providential views swirling among the population. A fourth important point, however, is the historical moment. 1665 was the mid-point of a half-century or more of extreme political instability, and the country was still marked by the divisions of the recent civil war, religious ferment, and ongoing political dissension; tensions over the respective roles and authority of Parliament and the executive remained. From March 1665 England was at war with its commercial rival and neighbour, the Dutch Republic. These circumstances shaped the policies and actions of national government and influenced perceptions of the epidemic and its causes.

Plague was familiar, and evoked well-tried practical responses. It had been a feature of London life for so long that it had its own playbook and cast of players. The three principals were the Privy Council, the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London at Guildhall (together with the Justices of the Peace for the large areas of the metropolis outside the Lord Mayor’s jurisdiction), and, collectively, the vestrymen and officers of London’s 130 parishes. The script was the Plague Orders, a list of regulations originating with the Privy Council, with input from physicians and more than a nod to continental practice, and evolved over time. They were issued by the Mayor and Aldermen, printed by the City’s printer, and by and large implemented by parish and other local officers. They had last been issued in 1646, when plague cases surged in a minor local epidemic, and were re-issued, with some additions, in June or July 1665.

The Plague Orders of 1665 had four main heads: the appointment of special officers including surgeons; ‘orders concerning infected Houses, and Persons sick of the Plague’, which covered quarantine of infected houses, burial of the dead, and the decontamination of materials; environmental and public hygiene measures; and public order. Essentially they provided an agenda for local and civic governments, to be implemented either by newly-appointed officers or the existing agencies of local government.

In London, the network of wards and parishes provided personnel with the local knowledge and experience to put the orders into practice. Every parish met the challenge in its own way, but the case of St. Bride Fleet Street, a large inner-city parish, offers an example. The vestry met on 16 June, ‘to consider of several things necessary in this time of visitation’. At this meeting they organized searchers of the dead to inspect every dead body and report the cause of death. They appointed bearers for the plague dead, fixed their wages, and established accommodation for them in the churchyard where they would not mix with other people. On 3 July they decided to give extra remuneration to the gravedigger to encourage him to dig graves deep ‘as it is ordered and as the time requires’. In August, they ordered burial in large pits in the parish churchyard rather than individual graves. Over the course of the epidemic, they appointed new officers to replace those who had died, including the senior churchwarden and his successor in late September and early October. At the local level, the records seem to show St. Bride’s parish as an administrative unit and as a community struggling under the pressure of events but not overwhelmed; other parishes likewise weathered the storm.

One vital area not covered by the Plague Orders was the organisation of relief for the infected and quarantined. It was recognised at the beginning of the epidemic that people might suppress evidence of infection for fear of the practical and financial consequences, and suggested that ‘if it were published that every infected person shall have medical attendance, &c., and payment for loss of time, persons would not conceal their misfortune’. Shutting up forty houses in good time might prevent the infection of 10,000. This proposal was probably both too costly and too radical to be adopted, and parishes, the normal distributors of poor relief, certainly faced huge demands on their funds. St. Bride’s spent £494 4s. between 19 June and 8 October on ‘poore visited persons and families’, ‘for their nurses, and for coffins and bearers for the burial of many such that died and other incident charges concerning their keeping and burials’. The ordinary poor rate was insufficient to cover this, and one of Guildhall’s most important roles was to collect and redistribute money for these purposes. Private benevolence went some way, but across London, the flight of the wealthy and well-to-do hampered fundraising. 

In many respects national, civic, and parish governments worked effectively together. The City appointed and remunerated physicians and surgeons, as required by the Orders. The Crown and City shared fears of the poor and their potential for disorder, and came down hard on possible occasions of it. The Plague Orders banned ‘Playes, Bear-baitings, Games, Singing of Ballads, Buckler-play, or such like causes of Assemblies of people’; the Mayor and Aldermen in addition closed grammar and other schools, especially dancing and fencing schools. The Plague Orders prohibited dinners at taverns, alehouses, ‘and other places of common entertainment’; the Mayor and Aldermen instructed innholders not to feed strangers within doors but permitted them to sell food and drink at the door.

However, the apparent unity of approach concealed a history of disagreement over policies, especially the practice of household isolation versus the institution of pesthouses. Recommendations earlier in the century to establish a medical magistracy or board of health for the whole of London had foundered, and though the City maintained and expanded its pesthouse, this was clearly inadequate for the scale of the epidemic: only 156 plague deaths were reported there, out of some 30-35,000 in the area within the City’s jurisdiction. It seems clear that the City authorities considered some of the Privy Council’s orders unworkable or even counter-productive, and the fact that so many social and political leaders and government officers left London, while the Mayor, Aldermen and civic bureaucracy remained at their posts, did not go unnoticed.

Information was key both to government’s programme of action and to the individual response. Since the sixteenth century civic and national government had collected data on London mortality; from the early seventeenth this had been released to the public in the form of weekly handbills listing numbers of deaths, and plague deaths, by parish: the Bills of Mortality. By 1665 the procedures were finely honed: parish clerks returned their weekly figures to Parish Clerks’ Hall, where they were collated into a single document, communicated first to the Lord Mayor and Privy Council, and printed for public dissemination on the Thursday. Though some questioned their accuracy – almost everyone knew of cases of plague unreported or misdiagnosed, and the unexplained rise in deaths attributed to ‘spotted fever’ was also noted – on the whole they were felt to provide a reliable guide to a rapidly-changing situation.

The weekly bills could alert authorities to an incipient epidemic, if plague deaths ceased to be random and rose steadily week on week or spread across the capital. In 1665, official concern about plague may have been sparked by the weekly Bill for 2-9 May, in which nine plague deaths in four parishes were reported; a committee of the Privy Council ‘for prevention of the spreading of the Infection of the Plague’ met on 13 May.

The weekly Bills were available to the public both for an annual subscription of 4s., and for individual sale. Though comparatively few originals have survived, contemporary letters and diaries demonstrate their readership and use. Outside epidemics, the reports of ‘casualties’ – mostly accidental deaths – provided a regular topic of conversation; during epidemics the weekly Bill communicated vital information on which to base decisions about personal safety and business strategy, as well as contributing to a sense of the situation as a collective trial. Private individuals as well as government officials forwarded the London figures to correspondents elsewhere.

Samuel Pepys’s diary, written almost continuously, records his reactions and responses. He first mentions reports and rumours of plague at the end of April, and noted seeing houses shut up in Drury Lane in June. As the epidemic progressed he clearly kept informed by reading the weekly Bills, and often notes the figures, using them to draw conclusions about the progress of the disease. He sent his wife to Woolwich in early July, but himself remained based in London for several more weeks. On 26 July he noted that ‘the sicknenesse is got into our parish this week’, information that he almost certainly took from the Bill published that day.

The height of the epidemic came in September. On 7 September Pepys ‘sent for the Weekly Bill and [found] 8252 dead in all, and of them, 6978 of the plague – which is a most dreadfull Number’. On 20 September he had advance notice, from the duke of Albemarle, ‘brought in the last night from the Lord Mayor’, that the weekly total had increased by over 600, ‘which is very grievous to us all’. However, a week later, he was able to record ‘Here I saw this week’s Bill of Mortality, wherein, blessed be God, there is above 1,800 decrease, this being the first considerable decrease we have had’.

Pepys’s practice is paralleled by that of William Allin, an Anglican minister resident in Southwark. Like Pepys, Allin first heard of plague in April. He monitored the rise in the weekly Bills and reported the figures to his correspondents in Rye, commenting through August and September ‘the sickness increaseth’, ‘the sicknes yet increaseth’, ‘the sicknesse encreased very much last bill’. With relief, he noted on 27 September ‘The Lord hath decreased this weekes bill 1839’, and on 19 October ‘A very mercifull abatement of the bill of mortality, viz. 1849 decreased this weeke’.

The weekly Bills were an official publication, issued by the Parish Clerks, but other printers flooded London with broadsides, handbills, leaflets and other printed ephemera. Notable among these were the composite or commemorative bills that offered food for thought in the form of mortality figures from previous epidemics. ‘The Four Great years of the Plague’ presented (somewhat questionable) weekly mortality figures for 1593, 1603, 1625, and 1636. A broadsheet printed on or after 27 June 1665 was entitled ‘General bills of mortality for seventy-three years last past’. Another broadsheet, ‘The Mourning-Cross’, printed on or after 29 August, offered figures for the major plague years alongside information on historical plagues and ‘A necessary prayer for this present time’. The last two both left gaps for the reader to fill in figures for future weeks, an invitation that was taken up in the two surviving examples. More substantial publications included John Bell’s London’s Remembrancer, discussing mortality for eighteen ‘years of pestilence’, first published at the beginning of September 1665, and, after the end of the year, London’s Dreadfull Visitation (a collection of all the weekly Bills for 1665), and Reflections the Weekly Bills of Mortality.

The appetite for information on the progress of the disease, and reflection on historic parallels, was matched by one for medical advice and remedies. Some of the composite Bills included remedies; other handbills offered advice that sometimes turned out to be a puff for some patent medicine. ‘The Observations of Mr LILLIE’, probably published in early July, discusses the origins and cause of plague, and offers both ‘a prayer to be used in all families’, and ‘several excellent receipts & approved medicines’. ‘Remedies against the Infection of the Plague’, ‘Composed by John Belson esquire’ gave explicit directions about the fumigation of rooms and textiles together with the description of a perfumed bag, ‘Celestial water’, and a cordial tincture, and notes of where to buy them.

More reputable medical practitioners, such as Gideon Harvey, a naturalized Dutchman, trained at Leiden and claiming the degree of MD, also stepped in. He published his Discourse of the Plague in July or early August 1665, explaining that the disease was bred in the earth and exhaled into the air as ‘flaming Arsenical corpuscles’. Londoners could choose between a range of different medical approaches, from traditional humoural or Galenic theory to modern ‘chemical’ practice. The broadsheet remedies are largely Galenic, relying on sweats, bleeding, and purges to expel the poison, following the line of the College of Physicians. Harvey combined both humoural analysis and treatment with more chemical remedies, including sulphur and metals. George Thomson’s Loimologia, also published during 1665 (‘these contagious times’), was for the most part a sustained critique of Galenic theory, practice, and practitioners, especially blood-letting and purging, and also the notion of astrological influence.

But what many of these publications explicitly acknowledged was that medical science by itself was not enough; the prime cause of the plague was divine intervention, and the remedy must include prayer, fasting and repentance. As seen above, many broadsheets included prayers. The Christian’s Refuge, published in July 1665, was a hybrid of medical and spiritual instruction. The printer Cotes stated that her motive for collecting all the 1665 bills and reprinting them as London’s dreadfull visitation was so that the information they contained might prompt Londoners to repentance.

The pulpits were another obvious medium for communication. Official responses included the order in July to keep a general fast day once a month, ‘for stay of the plague now visiting London and Westminster’, and publishing prayers to be read on those days. Ministers added their own interpretations in sermons, including ‘the author’s opinion and judgment, for which and why it is, that this unparallel’d visitation is now laid upon us’, which seemed to lie in ‘a catalogue and collection of all the particular capital sins mentioned in Scriptures’. London’s ‘pestilential visitation’ was evidence of God’s ‘more than ordinary’ judicial dispensation, and the city’s failure to be reformed even after twenty years of trials an ongoing affront. However, if the plague was some kind of divine judgement, for what, and on whom? Was it retribution for republicanism and the killing of the king, or for the restoration of the monarchy? Was it a divine judgment for past iniquities, or a call for timely amendment – or even an indication of God’s special favour and his desire to reform the not-yet-incorrigible city? Likewise, if it was a judgement, was it right to seek self-preservation, or should one resign oneself to likely death?

There are obvious parallels between the experience of one epidemic and another. There will always be conflicts between theory and practice, hard-headed pragmatism and compassion, the best interests of the many and the liberties of the few. As well as stories of suffering and loss, there will always be heroic sacrifice, diligent fulfilment of duty, and self-interested evasion. However, if some commonalities with the experience of 2020 can be found, the differences remain profound. The Londoners of 1665 confronted menacing dangers and existential questions, finding answers in their own world-view.


Vanessa Harding