The Great Plague 1665

The Great Plague 1665 –‘the most fearsome visitation that any man remembered…’

According to the Bills of Mortality, which were recorded and printed by the Company of Parish Clerks, it was this week – the week beginning the 12th to the 19th September – when the plague hit its highest death figures in 1665.

The Great Plague was indeed one haunting year in the City of London…

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Above: London’s Dreadful Visitation, a collection of all the Bills of Mortality: Beginning the 27th December 1664 ending the 19th December 1665; and a selected page from the Bills of Mortality showing when the plague hit its peak: 7,165 deaths.

The focus for this project was initially the Bills of Mortality – this source is famously associated with the Great Plague because it shaped how people in the 17th century understood the spread of disease, specifically from Parish to Parish. For the online exhibition on Pinterest I particularly wanted to highlight the dramatic increase and decrease in plague deaths each week in 1665 – starting from 21st March 1665 to the 12th December 1665 – this is shown in the simple line graph I created.

I also selected a few pages from the Bills of Mortality – particularly July to September; the months which I felt displayed the most shocking increase in plague deaths. It was during the hot summer months in 1665 when the black rat and its fleas rapidly multiplied. However, in the 17th century it was not known that this was in fact the source of infection. During this period it was believed that the air was infected and the dreadful visitation was a punishment from God.

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Above: A black rat and its fleas – Yersinia pestis bacteria – symptoms in humans included stomach-ache, vomiting and fever.

What is most striking about the Great Plague is that it changed the lives of all people in London – rich, poor, men, women and children; this is illustrated in the exhibition. Those who could afford to flee, for example, merchants, doctors and lawyers, escaped the city by land or river. The plague was the ‘Rich-man’s terrour, makes him flye, And bear away his bags, as loath to die…’ On the other hand, the poor remained in London; ‘What shall the Poor do that behind do stay? Death…’ Despite this, there were noblemen who did not flee, such as George, Duke of Albemarle and William, Earl of Craven.

Others who witnessed and wrote about this devastating period are also explored in the exhibition, including Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and Daniel Defoe. What I found particularly fascinating when researching and producing this project was the remedies that were recommended by physicians such as Doctor Thomas Cocke, who advised the poor to drink ‘hot posset drink’ and ‘wash their mouth and hands with warm water and vinegar’ to avert the infection. Also, one Doctor George Thomson practiced the dissection of the pestilential body alongside the burning of incense ‘to drive away the infected air.’

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Above: One of many remedies featured in the exhibition – it describes medicines that were approved to prevent the infection; drink ‘a pint of new Milk’ with ‘two cloves of Garlick’ – from ‘Londons Lord Have Mercy Upon Us’ 1665.

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Above: The Great Plague – the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in England. Nine engravings by John Dunstall – It is likely that these scenes were familiar in London throughout 1665. From nurses treating plague victims, homes that were shut and marked with a red cross, the rich fleeing the city, the burying and mourning of the dead, and survivors returning back to London after the rapid decline in plague deaths.

The exhibition on Pinterest demonstrates the variety of resources that are accessible at the Guildhall Library; from books, broadsides and engravings. Clicking on the link below a particular image will take you straight to that item on the library catalogue. There is no need to search for the resource as this is already done for you. If you have any questions about any of the sources featured in the board, or other materials that are not displayed in the exhibition but are obtainable in the library, staff are always happy to assist.  

I would like this opportunity to thank all staff at the Guildhall Library for their help and support. The feedback from staff and the public has been excellent, and for that I am really pleased and grateful. It has truly been a privilege to be part of this project and to share my research.

To visit the Great Plague 1665 board please click on this link: http://pinterest.com/guildhalllib/the-great-plague-1665/

To find out about future boards follow Guildhall Library on Pinterest, on Twitter @GuildhallLib, or like the library on Facebook.

Aynur Ismail, volunteer

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