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.
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.