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The Great Plague of London, 1665

Bring out your dead’ is a phrase often associated with plague but, as Sally Henshaw explained in her talk on the Great Plague of London, this is, at best, a half-truth and is part of the popular imagination concerning the Great Plague.


Crucial facts regarding the Plague of London are few - even the estimated death toll of around 70,000 is regarded as tentative and may be under-estimated by as much as 25,000. London at this time had a population of around 460,000, most of whom were poor and living in insanitary and overcrowded conditions.


In September 1665, the King and Court, the wealthy and many of the educated had left the city and those remaining were mostly the poor and illiterate. The death toll from the plague was so high that just keeping pace with burying the dead was a major task, without worrying about accurate death records.


Rather than the bodies being brought out of houses, it was more usual for the Parish to employ ‘Searchers of the Dead’, whose role was to enter premises and remove the dead bodies. Most of these ‘searchers’ were often illiterate, so that recording the causes of death would be sketchy. Also, many non-conformist sects buried their own dead and these could be missed from the official statistics.


The death toll was relentless and high (7,000 plague deaths were recorded in one week in September 1665) and normal burial practices were abandoned: the body collectors used hooks to drag bodies from the houses to avoid any contact with the corpses and large pits were dug for mass burials of victims which were covered with quick-lime to try to contain the spread of the disease. At this time the cost of the burials was borne by the parish and there were instances of bodies being dumped in neighbouring parishes to avoid these costs.


Plagues came in a variety of types but the Great Plague of London was bubonic plague, so named because the infections caused buboes or swellings to appear on the bodies of the victims. It is now known that the plague was spread by fleas which lived on black rats, but at the time this was unknown and a range of theories was put forward. Some believed that cats and dogs spread the plague, resulting in a cull of these animals. Ironically, this worsened the situation since it reduced the number of predators who could destroy the black rat.


Houses with plague victims were closed up and marked with red crosses for 40 days, followed by a further period of isolation of 20 days, when a white cross was painted on the building.


The level of infections began to decline in the autumn and cold winter of 1665/1666. The Great Fire of London in 1666 also helped reduce the incidence of plague. The fire destroyed the many breeding grounds of the black rats.



Plagues still occurred after 1665, but on a reduced scale as, crucially, the black rat population went into sharp decline following the introduction of brown rats which did not carry the plague-transmitting fleas.


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Eric Whelan

Issue 402
May 2018

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