Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

The Great Plague

NOTE.—I have taken (with some corrections) the contents of this chapter from Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe did not write from his own recollections, for he was but four years old at the time, but it is commonly allowed that an eye-witness could not have described this terrible calamity more accurately.

It was in the month of November, in the year 1665, that there first began to be spread abroad a report that the Plague had come again to London. But, for the most part, men took little heed of it, for such things are often said without cause. Nor, indeed, did we know the whole truth, because, as long as it was possible, the matter was kept secret. But when the weather set in hot, things became so bad, one hundred and twenty dying in the parish of St. Giles' only, that there was no more concealing the trouble. And now began a great flight of people from the city into the country.

London street


In the Broad Street of Whitechapel, where I had my dwelling, being a saddler by trade, was nothing to be seen but wagons and carts, loaded with children and servants and goods, coaches also with those of the better sort, and horsemen. And it could plainly be seen that all were equipped for travelling. This being so, I doubted what I should myself do. To leave my trade was to hazard the loss of all that I had in the world. To stay, on the other hand, was to put my life in peril. I changed my opinion more than once. But when I resolved to go, I was put off more than once by some accident. First, the servant whom I purposed to take with me, deceived me, for being frightened at the increase of the distemper, and not knowing when I should go, he left me. Secondly, the woman whom I should have put in charge of my house and goods fell sick. But what chiefly determined me was this, that taking up the Bible, if haply I might find guidance therein, I lighted upon the 91st Psalm, wherein is written: I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge, and my fortress, my God; in Him will I trust. Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler and from the noisome pestilence. . . . Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation. Thus shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

At the first the distemper was chiefly in the out-parishes, because they were very populous and fuller also of poor, but afterwards the city itself, that is to say, within the walls, was sorely visited. Only it must be remembered that many of the inhabitants, being rich men, had the means of going away, whereas the poor were constrained to stay. Verily I might have thought, when I walked abroad, that all the inhabitants of London had gone out of it, the streets which were commonly thronged being now grown desolate. Yet a man could not fail to learn that there were some yet left behind. The voice of mourning was heard in the streets, and the shrieks of women and children at the doors and windows of their houses, where their dearest relations were perhaps dying or just dead, were frequent to be heard. But this was rather in the first part of the visitation. Towards the latter end, men's hearts were hardened. They did not concern themselves for the loss of friends, expecting that they should themselves be summoned the next hour.

Then also there were other things that increased the general fear. A blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the beginning of the Plague. Some would have it that it was of a faint, dull, and languid colour, but this they said, I notice, not so much at the time as afterwards. Books also, pretending to be religious, were published at this time, and frighted the people, or at the least some of them, sorely. One of these was entitled "Come out of her, my People, lest you be partaker of her Plague." Another was called "Fair Warning." These did, either openly or secretly, foretell the ruin of the city. Then there was a preacher who cried continually in the streets—"Yet forty days, and LONDONshall be destroyed." He said no more, but repeated these words continually, with a voice and countenance full of horror. He would not stay to speak to any one or even to take food, but cried continually these words. Then some pretended, or, it maybe, believed, that they saw wondrous sights, as an angel with a sword, or the spirit of some dead man, pointing to a tombstone as the place to which many would soon come.

Of quacks and mountebanks that professed to have remedies against this disorder there was, as may be supposed, no lack. The door-posts of the houses and the corners of the streets were plastered over with their papers. Here one might see such flourishes as these: "INFALLIBLE Preventive Pills against the Plague," "NEVER-FAILING Preservatives against the Infection," "The ONLY TRUE Plague-Water," and the like. I could, if I would, fill a book with them. Others set up bills to summon people to their lodgings for direction and advice. Here you may read one of them: "An Italian Gentlewoman just arrived from Naples, having a choice secret to prevent infection, which she found out by great experience, and did wonderful cures with it in the late Plague there, wherein there died 20,000 in one day."

One of these added to his bills, which he gave about the streets, these words, "He gives advice to the poor for nothing." Abundance of poor people came to him accordingly, to whom he said much, telling them many good things for them to do. But the conclusion of all was that he had a preparation, which if they took such a quantity of, every morning, he would pawn his life they would never have the Plague. And the price of this was half-a-crown. One of them that came says to him: "Sir, I am a poor alms-woman, and am kept by the parish, and you say that you give your help to the poor for nothing." "Ay, good woman," says he, "I give my advice for nothing, but not my physic." "Alas, sir," answers the woman, "you have laid a snare for the poor," and gave him many ill words, and stood at his door all that day telling her tale to all the people that came, till the doctor, finding she turned away his customers, was obliged to call her upstairs again and give her his box of physic for nothing, which, perhaps, too was good for nothing when she had it.

Others dealt in charms and amulets, as if the Plague was a thing to be kept off with signs of the Zodiac; papers tied up in knots, with words or figures written upon them, as particularly, the word Abracadabra, formed in triangle or pyramid thus—


But the true physicians themselves, when the distemper was at its worst, could do nothing. It defied all medicine; the very physicians were seized with it, with their preservatives in their mouths, and some of them the most skilful of their profession. Of the means that were employed by persons in authority, as the Lord Mayor and aldermen within the City and the Justices of the Peace without it, the chief was the shutting up of houses that were infected. A watchman was set there night and day, to prevent the inhabitants stirring out, or any coming to them. This looked hard and cruel, and doubtless many perished that might have lived if they had been suffered to leave the infected houses without delay. But the public good justified the private mischief.

Yet many did escape out of these houses, as particularly, when the watchman was sent on some errand, for it was his business to go of any errand on which the family sent him, as to buy food and physic, or to fetch physicians or nurses, or to order the dead-cart. It was not possible that one man could watch a house, it having, perhaps, more than one door. Doubtless, also, many were bribed to suffer the dwellers in the infected houses to escape from them. I can scarcely find it in my heart to blame such as gave the bribes or such as received them. I pitied much three watchmen that were publicly whipped through the streets for suffering people to go out from infected houses.

Who shall describe the terrible sights and sounds that were to be seen and heard in the streets? The most dreadful thing that I myself encountered was of my own seeking, for I must needs go and see the great pit that they had digged for them that died of the Plague in the churchyard of our parish of Aldgate. 'Twas about 40 foot in length, and about 16 foot broad, and about 9 foot deep when I saw it, but afterwards, it was said, they dug it in one part as far as 20 foot, till they could get no further for the water. Many cried out at the size of it, saying that the churchwardens had a mind to bury the whole parish in it. But the churchwardens knew better than did they who blamed them. For having begun to bury on the 6th of September, they had thrown into it 1114 bodies in the space of two weeks, and so, the bodies having thus come to lie within six foot of the surface —and none were suffered to lie nearer—they were constrained to fill it up. Having seen it when it was newly digged, I saw it again on September l0th, when there was 400 buried, going in the night-time. This I did, though it was forbidden, having some acquaintance with the sexton. The good man would have dissuaded me. " 'Tis our duty," he said, "and we must do it at all hazards, but you that have no call there is nothing to justify." But when I said that it might be an instructing sight and not without its uses, he answered—"Go in; depend upon it, 'twill be a sermon to you, and the best you ever heard in your life."

When I heard this I wavered, but seeing two links come over from the Minories, and hearing the bell-man, and the dead-cart afterwards appearing, I could no longer resist it, but went in. There was no one in the churchyard but the buriers and the man that had the cart. But when they came to the pit, I saw a man in a brown cloak, going to and fro, and making motions under his cloak as one in a great agony. The buriers gathered round him, supposing him to be one of the desperate natures that would throw themselves alive into the grave. But they found him to be no such, but one oppressed with a dreadful weight of grief, for in the cart were his wife and several of his children. When he saw their bodies shot into the pit, for to lay them decently was not possible, he gave a great cry, and fell down in a swoon. This, I say, was the most dreadful sight I ever saw.

In this place I will relate in what manner I myself lived when the Plague was at its height, following herein the counsel of a physician who was very skilful in his art, and also my very good friend. He bade me lock up myself and my family in my home, and not suffer any one to go abroad. Nor was I to open any door or window except I first made a very strong smoke with rosin, or pitch, or brimstone, or gun-powder, in the room where the door or window was to be opened. Not having laid in any store of provisions, I could not keep within doors entirely. Nevertheless, though it was very late, I attempted something towards it. I went and bought two sacks of meal, and having an oven for several weeks we baked all our own bread. Also, I bought malt, and brewed as much beer as would fill all the casks that I had in my house. Also I laid in a quantity of salt butter and Cheshire cheese. As for flesh meat, the Plague raged so violently among the butchers that I judged it not advisable to go among them; so we were constrained to make shift without it.

But though I kept my family, to wit, an old woman that managed the house, a maid-servant, and two apprentices, within doors, I could not prevail upon myself, so curious was I, to stay entirely within. Yet I seldom went abroad but that I came home greatly terrified with what I had seen, to wit, persons falling dead in the streets, for some were taken with the disease and did not know it, till it had consumed all their strength, and sick people heaving open their chamber windows, and crying out in a most dismal, surprising manner, and such-like things.

Once, walking in Well Alley, I heard a great screaming in a house, and a noise of women and children running to and fro. Then I saw a garret window on the other side of the Alley thrown open, from which one called and asked, "What is the matter?" Upon which from the other house it was answered, "O Lord! my old master has hanged himself!" The other asked, "Is he quite dead?" and the first answered, "Ay, ay, quite dead; quite dead and cold!" This person was a merchant and a deputy-alderman, and very rich.

Another day I walked out into the fields towards Bow, for I had a great mind to see how things were managed on the river and among the ships. I had even a thought, having some concern in shipping, that the best way to avoid infection would be to retire into a ship. Musing on this I turned from Bow to Bromley, and so to Blackwall. Here I saw a poor man walking by himself on the sea-wall. I fell into some talk with him, and asked him, how people did thereabouts? "Alas, sir," said he, "almost all desolate; all dead or sick." Then, pointing to one house, "There they are all dead," said he, "and the house stands open; nobody dare go into it." Then I asked him what he did there alone. Thereupon he pointed to a very little low boarded house, and said: "That's my house; and there are my poor wife and children. She is visited with the Plague, and so is one of the children. She, I hope, will recover; but I fear the child will die. I work for them as much as I am able." "How is that?" said I. "Why, sir," says he, "I am a waterman, and there's my boat, and the boat serves me for a house. I work in it by day, and sleep in it by night. What I get I lay down upon that stone," showing me a broad stone on the other side of the street, "and halloo and call to them till I make them hear, and they come and fetch it."

"Well, friend," says I, "but how can you get any money as a waterman? Does anybody go by water in these times?" Then he told me how he fetched provisions for ships that lay in the river, buying them from places not infected, as from Woolwich, and from single farm-houses on the Kentish side, places where he was known.

After some further talk, the poor woman opened the door, and called, "Robert, Robert!" He answered, and bade her stay a few moments, and he would come. So he ran down the stairs to his boat, and fetched up a sack in which were certain provisions that had been given him. These he took to the stone, and laid them out on it, and also the money that he had earned in the week, four shillings and a groat. His wife came and fetched them away, but was so weak that she could not carry all at once, though the weight was not much. So she left her little boy by it till she could come again. Then the man cried to her, "The Lord keep you all," and so he turned to go away.

There are many more things to be told about this terrible time, of how some stayed bravely at their posts, as clergymen and others, and others fled for their lives; how some were moved by the visitation to repentance, and others were made more desperate; but I have consumed enough of time and space, and so must make an end. I may say, by way of conclusion, that the sum of those who died this year by the Plague, in London, was counted at 68,596 persons, but I should reckon it to have been near upon 100,000.

NOTE.—The population of London at this time was not more than 600,000.