This was the worst outbreak of plague in England since the black death of 1348. London lost roughly 15% of its population. While 68,596 deaths were recorded in the city, the true number was probably over 100,000. Other parts of the country also suffered.
The earliest cases of disease occurred in the spring of 1665 in a parish outside the city walls called St Giles-in-the-Fields. The death rate began to rise during the hot summer months and peaked in September when 7,165 Londoners died in one week.
Rats carried the fleas that caused the plague. They were attracted by city streets filled with rubbish and waste, especially in the poorest areas.
Those who could, including most doctors, lawyers and merchants, fled the city. Charles II and his courtiers left in July for Hampton Court and then Oxford. Parliament was postponed and had to sit in October at Oxford, the increase of the plague being so dreadful. Court cases were also moved from Westminster to Oxford.
The Lord Mayor and aldermen (town councillors) remained to enforce the King’s orders to try and stop the spread of the disease. The poorest people remained in London with the rats and those people who had the plague. Watchmen locked and kept guard over infected houses. Parish officials provided food. Searchers looked for dead bodies and took them at night to plague pits for burial.
All trade with London and other plague towns was stopped. The Council of Scotland declared that the border with England would be closed. There were to be no fairs or trade with other countries. This meant many people lost their jobs – from servants to shoemakers to those who worked on the River Thames. How did Londoners react to this plague that devastated their lives?
There are three types of plague. Most of the sick in 1665-1666 had bubonic plague. This created swellings (buboes) in the lymph nodes found in the armpits, groin and neck. Plague sufferers experienced headaches, vomiting and fever. They had a 30% chance of dying within two weeks. This type of plague spread from a bite caused by a black rat flea that carried the Yersinia pestis bacteria.
Worse still was pneumonic plague, which attacked the lungs and spread to other people through coughing and sneezing, and septicaemic plague, which occurred when the bacteria entered the blood. In these cases, there was little hope of survival.
Treatments and prevention at the time did not help. Sometimes, patients were bled with leeches. People thought impure air caused the disease and could be cleansed by smoke and heat. Children were encouraged to smoke to ward off bad air. Sniffing a sponge soaked in vinegar was also an option.
As the colder weather set in, the number of plague victims started to fall. This was not due to any remedies used. Nor was it due to the fire of London that had destroyed many of the houses within the walls of the city and by the River Thames. (Many plague deaths had occurred in the poorest parishes outside the city walls.)
Some scientists suggest that the black rat had started to develop a greater resistance to the disease. If the rats did not die, their fleas would not need to find a human host and fewer people would be infected. Probably, people started to develop a stronger immunity to the disease. Also, in plague scares after 1666, more effective quarantine methods were used for ships coming into the country. There was never an outbreak of plague in Britain on this scale again.
This lesson can be used at Key stage 3 for the National Curriculum programme of study into how the lives, beliefs, ideas and attitudes of people in Britain have changed over time.
The lesson considers the measures taken by King Charles II in response to the plague and the reactions of some of the people to these restrictions, as well as providing contemporary comment on the situation.
The questions encourage pupils to investigate the sources and make their own judgements on the evidence where possible.
Source 1 provides some figures on plague deaths and evidence on the role of the searchers. (SP 29/132 f28)
Source 2 shows evidence of how contemporaries tried to prevent the spread of the disease (SP 29/155 f102). It might also encourage pupils to think about law and order in a wider historical context. For example, after the experience of English Civil War, people were probably more accepting of authority.
Sources 3a and 3b reveal some contemporary attitudes to the restrictions (SP 29/134 f31 and PC 2/58).
Pupils could attempt a piece of extended writing on the great plague of London using evidence from the lesson, plus this extract and others from the Diary of Samuel Pepys:
16 October 1665 But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physitian, and but one apothecary left, all being dead – but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week. God send it.
Pupils could create their own role play or drama set at the time using these sources.
Pupils could read extracts from Daniel Defoe’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’, 1722, which is available online.
A journal of the plague years
Read the online version of Daniel Defoe’s thoroughly researched reconstruction of 1665.
The plague did not only affect London. This tells the famous story of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire that deliberately isolated itself to stop the spread of the disease to nearby villages.