Panic buying, self-isolation, an unknown pathogen: The link between spring 2020 and summer 1665.
Once I saw an old parish register in the church of St Olave’s Hart Street, a rare survivor of the Great Fire of London. Next to a death neatly recorded for July 23, 1665, was a red ‘P’. The deceased was a young girl and the ‘P’ was for the plague that had started that spring in the parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields, three miles to the west.
By then the pathogen was on the move and the register shows its grim progress: Ps proliferated from July to September. The last red-letter day was Christmas Eve.
A fitful start in the spring, a few warning voices, a lull, a horrifying rise in deaths, panic-buying, anger, fear, accusation, a six-month-or-so trajectory. Sound familiar? The parallels with 2020 are obvious, although Covid-19 is arguably less deadly and the global scale of our pandemic unimaginable by seventeenth-century standards.
St Olave’s, which sits in the ‘Square Mile’ – the old City of London, our Wall Street – is the best place to get the feel of that awful summer 345 years ago. Bubonic plague, carried from Asia to Europe by the fleas on ships’ rats and manifested in humans as unsightly lumps, or ‘buboes’, resulted in over 68,000 recorded deaths. That was about 15 percent of the city’s population – today’s equivalent would be 1,400,000 corpses.
The church is gorgeous but has some gruesome features. Its stone gate arch sports a daisy chain of skulls, which led Charles Dickens to call it ‘St Ghastly Grim’, and its graveyard looms high above the church door. There are rumoured to be 300 plague victims under there – there are similar rumors, usually unfounded, across London.
At least now self-isolation does not mean being locked into your house with a foot-high red cross and the words ‘God have mercy on us’ daubed on your front door. We don’t have pesthouses for the infected nor open plague pits as there were at St Paul’s in Shadwell, Moorfields in the City and Tothill Fields near Westminster Abbey.
It’s the human details that are so painfully familiar: the metropolis closing down; people eyeing each other in empty streets; hypochondria (have I got it, have I not?); nervous sallies to shop for necessities; rumours of petty crime, sick neighbours and magical remedies; prayers to cheer you on; grief at the deaths of friends and family.
A vivid account comes from a famous St Olave’s parishioner, Samuel Pepys, a naval administrator and Londoner who just happened to be writing a shorthand diary over the most riveting 11 years in English history. ‘16 October 1665. But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy,’ he wrote in his house on Seething Lane, ‘so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard…’
Seething Lane Garden is behind Ten Trinity Square, the newish Four Seasons hotel near the Tower of London. It has a bust of Pepys and 30 contemporary carved paving stones – one shows a giant flea from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, a collection of engravings from microscope images and a best-seller in January 1665. Nobody knew then that this was actually the vector: carrier of the deadly Yersinia pestis bacteria.
Another good spot to visit is St Stephen Walbrook, near the Bank of England, which has a wall memorial to the brave physician Nathaniel Hodges, who stayed in the City throughout the plague. Many didn’t: when the King and Court left in June, first for Hampton Court, later for Oxford, a suspiciously large number of ‘courtiers’ went too.
However, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen stayed with their officials: watchmen to guard sealed houses; searchers (often female) to check bodies for signs of plague; boarders to cart them to the pits. The poor stayed because they had nowhere to go.
Everywhere was the smoke used for fumigation, which didn’t work, and the grim sights depicted in John Dunstall’s ‘Nine Scenes relating to the 1665 Plague’, printed that year. For drama, read Daniel Defoe’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’. It’s fiction, written 50 years later, but every time I turn down Tokenhouse Yard in the City, I remember his description of a window flying open and a woman screaming ‘Death, death, death!’
Compared to the virulent Black Death of the 1340s, which genuinely transformed Europe, the economic effects of the Great Plague were oddly muted. Unemployment boomed, yes, but so did trade, the minute the disease slowed in the colder weather.
Then, just as London was picking itself up in 1666 (a year, as everyone noted, that contained the number of the Beast), a long hot summer, a low river and a stiff wind turned a bakery blaze into a conflagration that not only swept away the last of the plague but destroyed much of the City. And that truly changed everything forever.
Images: Wellcome Collection
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