The Great Plague was a devastating event in the City of London, wiping out almost 100,000 people. Whether young or old, man or woman, saint or sinner, it killed mercilessly and changed London forever. To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Plague in London we are currently staging the exhibition London’s Dreadful Visitation: Exploring the Great Plague through Guildhall Library’s Collections. Come along to learn more about the pestilence, including the remedies people used; their thoughts on the cause; and what the authorities did in response to the outbreak.
To put the exhibition together, I researched the topic using the mass of information available at Guildhall Library, from books and broadsides to manuscript records of the numbers of the dead. A lot of the texts available at Guildhall Library are unique, and we hold the fullest set of Bills of Mortality in the world, dating from 1532-1858. The Parish Clerks’ Bills are the closest things we have to accurate statistics about disease. Recording causes of death and numbers of burials parish by parish, week by week, they help us understand the spread of plague across the City. They also acted as an early warning system for outbreaks of plague in 1665. A lot of these items are currently available to view in the exhibition, and there are lots more on the open shelves that you can read at the library, without an appointment!
While reading these fascinating texts, I came across many interesting stories and accounts of the plague written by eye-witnesses. As well as the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, we also have texts by doctors and clergymen. One of the most distressing things I read was the minister Thomas Vincent’s account of “a woman…weeping by the door where I lived…with a little Coffin under her arm…; I did judge that it was the mother of the childe, and that all the family besides was dead, and she was forced to coffin up and bury with her own hands this her last dead childe.”
To accompany the exhibition a launch event was held on Thursday 16 July, as well as a series of upcoming family workshops with Assistant Librarian Isabelle Chevallot. There will be an opportunity to explore a variety of the original sources as well as being treated to an atmospheric plague storytelling session. Please check www.ghlevents.eventbrite.co.uk for more information and to book. Also, don’t forget to look out for forthcoming plague merchandise, including posters and tea towels.
Want to find out more? Our exhibition is free and open until 11 September. After this date, the banners from the exhibition will be available to hire for display in museums and schools. If you are interested please get in touch at GHLevents@cityoflondon.gov.uk.
Events and Exhibitions Officer