The coronavirus pandemic of this year (and late last year) has sparked a renaissance of interest in the Great Plague of London which ravaged the city from 1665–1666. Valid similarities have been drawn between the two events, specifically regarding the suspension of large-scale public events. What many comparisons omit, however, is just how harsh life really was for a Londoner at the time and how a social view of the plague reveals unsettling truths about how the disease affected people of different classes.
The experience was far from universal. As with the current pandemic, social and medical determinants resulted in varying experiences depending on one’s class and location. This is demonstrated by the fact that although a standard plague mortality pattern consists of a steady increase in deaths followed by a steeper decline in deaths, some parts of London saw entirely different patterns. The parish of St. Katharine by the Tower saw an extended mortality pattern during the plague of 1609 and in 1665, the parish of All Hallows London saw an enteric mortality pattern, probably due to an infected water supply. While these differences are biological, social factors are also at play and understanding them may be just as important as understanding the science behind the plague.
The most obvious social factor was wealth. Simply put, the wealthy could afford to leave the city and the poor could not — they were ‘anchored’ to it for a variety of reasons. The wealthy often had second homes they could go to or family/friends in the country who would accept them along with the money required to do so. The ‘ordinary folk’, on the other hand, did not have the money or connections to flee the city and even if they tried, they’d likely starve or freeze. On top of this, those who remained in the city had to deal with other complications brought about by the plague. Sudden mass unemployment and population decrease (from death and fleeing) resulted in an unstable economy in which the poor were exposed to famine and disease. John Graunt, an early demographer, reckoned that the plague deaths in the weekly bills of mortality were under-reported and that the real numbers could be discovered by calculating the surplus non-plague deaths compared to what you would normally expect in the said parish at a time when the plague was not present and assigning those deaths to the plague. This is understandable, however it ignores the possibility that the plague exacerbated diseases, led to famine, and likely arrived in England with other diseases.
How the disease-ridden city was portrayed varied greatly, owing to various factors from genuine differences in experience to ulterior motives (such as religious writers emphasising the plague as a punishment from God). Although fiction, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) was considered authentic for many years due to its basis of genuine research. Defoe’s image of London is a bleak one. Trade ceased, unemployment soared, the ‘bread of the poor were cut off’, and those who evaded the plague’s bite often succumbed to famine or disease. At the same time, Defoe accurately details the efforts of city officials (many of whom, including the Lord Mayor, remained in London) to maintain order. Many of the poor were employed as watchmen, offering employment and serving a practical function. This was part of a wider process by which, as historian Justin Champion argues, communities of surveillance were created and the need for constant supervision by city officials made unnecessary. Officials did step in to ensure that shops selling food, such as bread, were kept in operation, unfortunately aided by the plague’s ability to lessen the number of mouths needing to be fed.
London was a ghost city. Plays had been cancelled, as had public sporting events — this policy has been particularly noted due to its current relevance. At times, Defoe’s description of it (backed up by contemporary accounts from people such as Samuel Pepys) depicts a quiet city, not one rife with death and chaos. There were breaches of order, such as infected people escaping isolation and instances of crime, but more extraordinary was just how orderly the city was able to remain. Although burial pits acting as mass graves are usually associated with the atrocity of the plague as a ruthless killer, they also allowed the streets in many parishes to be kept remarkably clean. As Defoe notes, ‘in the day-time there was not the least signal of the calamity to be seen or heard of’.
We must, of course, not forget that the plague killed a recorded 68,000 people (though the real number is more likely 100,000). With death so common, people were rightly afraid, and even if many streets appeared clean and safe, there was certainly a general air of fear. In his Loimologia (1665), Nathaniel Hodges encapsulates this fear through his very emotive description of the plague. Even ‘the relation of this calamity melts me into tears’ he claims, painting a picture of a city in which the infected ‘ran about staggering like drunken men, and fell and expired on the streets.’ A city full of bodies, piled on one another. Even Defoe lends an ear to some horrific anecdotes, including the death of young children and pregnant women.
So what are we to make of these descriptions? Trying to lump the experience of the Great Plague of London into one coherent narrative is a fairly difficult task, as experiences varied from place to place and person to person. However, the most reasonable impression seems to be that life in plague-ridden London was far from pleasant but also far from the hellscape it is often presumed to be. At the worst of times, the sense of death would consume people, as bodies lay on the street and many starved. At the best of times, in areas where the streets were kept clean and order maintained, it might have been possible to momentarily forget there was even a plague at all.