What Was Life Like in Plague-Ridden London?

5 min readJul 28, 2020
A contemporary depiction of a plague-time funeral (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Three parishes, three plagues, three different mortality patterns. The top shows a typical plague pattern, the middle an extended mortality pattern, and the bottom an enteric mortality pattern. (Source: History in Focus)

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…


Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.