‘May 29th 1666. Spent on the City Marshall at ye shutting up of a visited house . . Is.0d.’
Plague had always stalked England throughout the centuries with regular outbreaks such as the one known as the Black Death in the 14th century which brought death on such a scale that whole villages were so absolutely decimated hundreds of them were abandoned – the few survivors, if any, moving away perhaps reduced to beggarhood. But probably the outbreak that springs to mind for most of us is that of 1665 which became known as The Great Plague. The plague had been hovering about for the previous 30 years with some serious outbreaks such as the one in 1647 when 3,597 souls succumbed to it. Prior to that in 1603 there had been 33,347 deaths which led to the weekly publication of the Bills of Mortality. It probably never entirely left – trapped in the rancid, fetid alleys formed by the overhanging roofs of the timber framed houses that seem so picturesque to us nowadays. The light and fresh air could not permeate those dark, dank places that were often ankle deep in mud – and a lot worse besides – nothing more than open sewers dotted here and there with equally malodorous laystalls where dung, rotting animal carcasses and general refuse were deposited. Lord Macauley noted ‘The drainage was so bad that in rainy weather the gutters soon became torrents. Several facetious poets have commemorated the fury with which these black rivulets roared down Snow Hill and Ludgate Hill, bearing to Fleet Ditch a vast tribute of animal and vegetable filth from the stalls of butchers and greengrocers. This flood was profusely thrown to right and left by coaches and carts. To keep as far from the carriage road as possible was therefore the wish of every pedestrian. The mild and timid gave the wall. The bold and athletic took it. If two roisterers met, they cocked their hats in each other’s faces, and pushed each other about till the weaker was shoved towards the kennel. If he was a mere bully he sneaked off, muttering that he should find a time, If he was pugnacious the encounter probably ended in a duel behind Montague House'(1).
However the heavy frosts of the unusually severe winter of 1664 and the beginning of 1665 perhaps held the pestilence at bay for a while until the frost finally broke in March when the first deaths appeared in St-Giles-in-the-Fields which lay just outside the city wall as well as Westminster where several members from the same family are recorded as all dying suddenly from it. Plague had arrived (2).
People had already been nervous – a great comet had been seen in the sky in late 1664 and in a superstitious time this did not bode well as many thought. Soon the rich and whoever could manage it begun to exodus London – first in a trickle and then in a deluge. It should be noted however not all those that could leave did. An example is William, Earl of Craven (1608-1697). He was a member of the commission appointed to consider the best means of preventing the spread of the epidemic. He recommended the use of pest houses where the sick could be taken as opposed to cruely shutting up both the sick and well together in their homes until they all succumbed and died or in some cases went insane. William stayed put throughout the duration of the epidemic to perform his duties and was still present in London in 1666 when the Great Fire struck. A delightful little anecdote described how his horse become so accustomed to his master attending fires that he would automatically head towards where the fire bell sounded without any bidding. There was also some courageous doctors and apothecaries who stayed behind to perform their duties and who paid heavily for their bravery. Included amongst these brave medical practitioners was Samuel Pepys doctor. Pepys made the most of the opportunity and together with a friend ‘drank a cup of good drink’. He would go on to explain “I am fain to allow myself alcohol during this plague time… my physician being dead ….’ However broadly speaking it was London’s poor who would suffer the brunt of the horror. Walter George Bell – author of possibly the most knowledgable book ever written about the contagion – The Great Plague of London – noted for example that not one single magistrate would succumb to it.
A contemporary drawing of the time depicting people attempting to flee London. Unknown artist.
The deaths begun to increase rapidly and it’s highly likely many cases were disguised as death by other causes in the Mortality Bills – people, naturally – didn’t want to be boarded up in their houses with a red cross painted on the door and left until they and all their family finally and inevitably perished. A contemporary writer of the time described how those poor souls ‘were compelled, though well, to watch upon the death-bed of their dear relation, to see the corpse dragged away before their eyes. Affrighted children stand howling by their side. Thus they are fitted by fainting affliction to receive the impressions of a thousand fearful thoughts in that long night they have to reckon with before release, as the family so dismally exposed, sink one after another in the den of this dismal likeness of Hell’ (3).
‘An Incident in the Great Plague’. Artists impression of a street scene somewhere in London 1665. The man has returned home to find the door with a red cross and boarded up. He is unable to gain entry to help his family. Tragic scenes like this must have played out on a regular basis. Painted c.1840. Artist Alexander Christie.
It is estimated 100,000 were to lose their lives that horrendous year to the pestilence creating a terrible and hideous problem. And it is here the infamous plague pit came into play. It’s now known that not all plague victims were deposited unceremoniously into the pits with many remains of victims being found buried, although uncoffined, in what was an orderly although probably hurried burial. The Crossrail excavations have come across several of these mass burials such as the one on the Liverpool Street site where the remains of 45 people were found that appear to have been buried at the same time. A stone was also found with 1665 carved upon it. I’ll return to the plague pits later.
The grave of the 45 victims of the Plague found at Liverpool Street Station. Photo Crossrail Project MOLA.
The dogs and cats of London, those great foes and exterminators of the Black Rat – host to the true culprit of the catastrophe – the flea that carried the Yersinia pestis bacteria and main carrier of the plague – were themselves exterminated before they could perform their duties. Thousands of them were unnecessarily slaughtered, powder and shot being supplied for the job, their bodies being carried away in wheelbarrows by the ‘rakers’. One killer of some of the hapless animals was paid 4s for burying 353 dogs alone. The black rat, Rattus rattus, was not for nothing known as the House Rat, preferring to make their homes as close to humans as possible and to live off their food rather than go to the trouble of having to forage outside. Not only that – the medieval timber framed houses of the time, with lathe and plaster walls, made perfect rat runs and the boarded floors with cellars with earthen floors beneath, all proved perfect living conditions for the little blighters. Smaller than the larger brown rat we have today – known as Rattus Norvegicus – Rattus Rattus’ dark shiny coat could take on an almost bluish hue, his large hairless ears giving the impression he was always on alert for the slightest sound. It transpired, tragically, that the very fleas that the rat was playing host to, were the undetected source of horrendous and fatal disease and when it had succeeded in killing the host rat it would leap off onto its next victim – which if there were no available rats in the vicinity would be the nearest man, woman or child. Dr Anne Roberts in an excellent History Today article tells us that ‘Like most fleas, the rat flea prefers to feed off a single species of animal, and will only bite humans when an outbreak of rat plague has left insufficient rats to feed off‘. For all you ever want to know about the rats and their fleas click here (4). Sometimes the fleas would linger – until a suitable host happened along – in cracks and crevices or even clothes and blankets something which led to the tragic outbreak in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. This undetected and horrendous danger led to the seemingly never ending outbreaks of pestilence which caused literally millions of deaths until the 17th century when the Brown Rat, Rattus Norvegicus, larger and more powerful, finally arrived in England when in the fullness of time it would overrun its smaller cousin. It’s possibly the arrival of the Brown Rat or the sewer rat as it is also known, was the main reason for the elimination of the plagues which had troubled England so greatly over the centuries rather than, as is sometimes assumed, the Great Fire of London which destroyed the major part of old London with its closely packed timber framed houses. It should be remembered that the plague also disappeared from the unburnt parts of London including Stepney which had suffered some of the highest death rates than any other parish. St Giles-in-the Fields, St Margaret’s Westminster, St Martin’s and Cripplegate as well as the rest of England were never again to suffer from the catastrophic consequences of a major outbreak of plague – another pointer in the favour of the demise of Rattus Rattus being a major reason for the disappearance of the pestilence. Finally in 1894 thanks to the Indian Plague Research Commission the source of plague was discovered: ‘The communicating agents are the fleas of infected rats – the germ B.pestis – the cause of all the trouble – being conveyed by the infected flea direct from rat to man by innoculation by flea bites through the skin’. It was not until later in the early 20th century that the bacillus of Plague was discovered during an epidemic in Hong Kong by a Japanese Doctor Kitasato (5) How tragic that this was never picked up upon meaningfully enough to bring about a major cull of Rattus Rattus and his fleas earlier and thus save millions of lives over the centuries.
An image of a street scene… From a facimile of a broadsheet. The Great Plague of London by Walter George Bell.
The above scene has a lot going on – a dead dog lies in the road with another dog about to get clubbed to death. Other dead animals appear to be being taken away in a wheelbarrow. Note the two ‘searchers of the dead‘ – women, often elderly, carrying white staves as a warning to the public to keep a distance from them. Here also is shown one of the many fires – one before every sixth house – which were lit from the night of 5th September and kept burning for three days and three nights in the belief it would decontaminate ‘the infected air‘ (6). It was certainly not a new idea – in the plague of 1563 every household was ordered to lay out wood three days a week to enable the fires to continue to burn. This proved about as much use as the tying of a dried toad to your chest and probably made matters worse. However I suppose anything was worth a try when you have nothing to lose.
THE BILLS OF MORTALITY
When someone died in a London Parish a ‘Searcher of the Dead‘ would be sent to ascertain the cause of death. These Searchers were inevitably elderly, poverty stricken women, often in the most horrible dire straights themselves, forced to carry out this awful duty as a last resort to keeping alive themselves. During times of plague these Searchers had to live as outcasts from the rest of society. Walter Bell describes how they were required to lodge at a place appointed, not going abroad more than was necessary and then only in execution of their duty. They were to absent themselves from their families and to avoid mixing with other people. They should keep as far distant from others as might be, carrying in their hand a white wand by which pedestrians should know and avoid them. All this they were caused to swear upon an oath to do. Worryingly the task of ascertaining the cause of death would also fall on these ‘ancient matrons‘. They then reported to the Clerk of the Parish, who each week returned a list of deaths to the Company of Parish Clerks at their hall in Brode Lane, Vintry. The company in turn gave the information to the Lord Mayor who in times of Plague would pass it on to the Minister of State. The Bill of Mortality containing all this information was then made up and printed. Occasionally the Searchers would be advised of a doctors opinion as to the cause of death if a doctor had actually attended but usually they were either given the cause of death by relatives, or despite their lack of any medical training made a diagnosis themselves based their own observations of the corpse which led to a plethora of weird and wonderful causes of death. Clearly they were never at a loss in making a diognosis and anything they did not know they made up as they went along. This led to an abuse of a totally inadequate system. To paraphrase a contemporary writer ‘The old women Searchers after the mist of a cup of ale and the bribe of a two groat fee instead of one given to them cannot discern a bonce from a bottom’ (7). This makes Bills very interesting reading and it’s not difficult to cotton on to the fact that some plague deaths were described as deaths by other causes to avoid the house being shut up with the resultant deaths of the whole family. The examples below are from the Bill dated 15th to the 22nd August 1665
Chrisomes 9, Frighted 2, Gowt 1, Head-mould-shoot 1, Jaundies 7, Imposthume 8, Kingsevil 4, Lethargy 1, Meagrome 1, Purples 2, Rising of the Lights 18, Stopping of the stomach 17, Strangury 3, Suddenly 2, Tiffick 9, Winde 4, Wormes 10 and Gripping-in-the-Guts (sounds like a small town in Gloucestershire!) Total deaths from Plague were 4237.
This Bill covers the 12th to the 19th September…
THE PLAGUE PITS
It is said in times of human troubles ‘this too will pass’. And indeed towards the end of 1665 the number of plague victims begun to subside – perhaps as a result of the fleas either dying themselves for lack of new hosts or going into hibernation. Slowly Londoners returned to their homes. We can only imagine the shudder of horror of that must surely have run through them when they viewed the churchyards with their now much higher raised levels evidencing multi burials. Pepys has left us with his vivid memory of this particular harrowing sight: ‘It frighted me more than I thought it could have done, to see so many graves lie so high upon the churchyards where people have been buried of the Plague (8). Even more horrifying were the sights of the many newly dug pits. Some of the whereabouts of the pits are known, but the greater majority are lost to us as in time they were built over and forgotten. Sometimes in recent times when a building project is going, on a pit will be uncovered, which is what happened during the excavations of the Crossrail Link. Daniel Defoe, born in 1660, when writing his fictional work Journal of the Plague Year would have been able to talk to survivors of the Plague who were able to inform him of the whereabout of some of the pits especially the larger ones the awful remembrance of which would have been left ingrained upon their memory. The known ones include:
Shoreditch, Holywell Mount. In the main now built over but a small open area still survives between Holywell Lane, Scrutton Street and Curtain Road.
Mount Mill near Goswell Street, north of Seward Street, Finsbury. Mentioned by Defoe who described this pit being mostly for victims who had lived in Aldersgate and Clerkenwell. Later made into a Physick (Herb) Garden but now covered by a car park. Some of the pit may also lay beneath an open area to the south now a playground in Seward Street.
Bishopsgate Street. Upper end of Hand Alley – now known as New Street. Defoe wrote ‘The upper end of Hand Alley in Bishopsgate Street was then a green field, and was taken in particulary for Bishopgate parish, though many of the carts out of the City also brought their dead thither also…’ When an attempt was made to build upon the pit quite soon after it is said some of the bodies were found to be still well preserved enough to be able to distinguish the women by their long hair. This caused a bit of a problem with concern that this disturbance of the remains would cause the pestilence to rear its head once again. What to do? Consequently 2000 bodies were buried nearby in a new pit which was cordoned off with strict instructions it was not to be built upon. This area would eventually evolve over time into Rose Alley.
Hand Alley, now New Street. The original pit was in a field which lay at the end of the lane to the east and the new pit was built in Rose Alley both of which are encircled – Rose Alley being marked by the green dot. Ogilvy and Morgan map 1676-79.
New Street and Rose Alley today. The layouts of London streets and lanes seldom change over the centuries.
Stepney Fields – south west of St Dunstan’s and All Saints Church. Large. Burial pit for 2,978 victims of the Plague of 1625 as well as 6,583 in 1665 (9). Stepney then was semi rural. Plague arrived here towards the end of July when 33 died but by September the figures had leaped to 716. The parish which included areas which backed onto the Thames had a number of ship owners resident there. They pertinently ‘shut themselves up in their berthed ships, all sails furled under the relentless sun, to see the disaster out’ (10).
St Paul’s Shadwell. One of five large pits in Stepney.
Moorfields: Discovered during the building of the Elizabeth Line. Defoe described plague burials in a ‘piece of ground at Moorfields, by the going into the street which is now called Old Bethlem‘. Gillian Tindell in her book The Tunnel Through Time says this would be the garden of Bethelem Hospital – which covered over an acre.
Gower’s Walk Whitechapel – excavated in 1893. Now rebuilt over.
Marylebone – churchyard of St John the Evangelist.
Oxford Street. During the rebuilding of a bookshop in the 1920 vast numbers of bones were found all heaped together indiscriminately which would suggest this was a plague pit burial (11).
Southwark. Southwark’s many victims of the plague were buried in fields along Deadman’s Place now known as Park Street – a name chosen because it run across what had once been the Bishop of Winchester’s Park who had a palace in the area. The area covering the pit would later be absorbed into Messrs. Barclay and Perkins’ Brewery. Now redeveloped but the area of the pit can still be seen today.
Deadman’s Place burial ground/plague pit circled in red. From Horwood’s Plan 1792-99. Map now held in The British Library.
The site of Deadman’s Place today. Now surrounded by houses but still recognisable.
Fulham, Lille Road. Large numbers of human remains are said to have been uncovered here in the area of an orchard belonging to Normand House. Later covered by Lintaine Grove (12).
Rear of 41 Beak Street and Golden Square, Soho. When the houses in Beak Street – of which 41 and 43 are still standing today – were erected in the late 18th century, cartloads of bones were discovered, which makes it highly likely a plague pit had been uncovered. This may have been a secondary plague pit or even part of the main one which lay beneath a nearby field that later became known as Golden Square. Lord Macaulay writing in 1685 tells us ‘On the east was a field not to be passed without a shudder by any Londoner of that age.There, as in a place far from the haunts of men, had been dug, twenty years before, when the great plague was raging, a pit into which the dead carts had nightly shot corpses by scores. It was popularly believed that the earth was deeply tainted with infection, and could not be disturbed without imminent risk to human life. No foundations were laid there till two generations had passed without any return of the pestilence, and till the ghastly spot had long been surrounded by buildings (13).
Kensington, Tattersall’s Gate.
Tothill Fields, Westminster. Part of the pit now lies beneath the playing fields at Vincent Square (which is owned by Westminster School) and some beneath Government buildings. Piles of bones were uncovered during excavations as well as broken clay pipes which were smoked by the men who collected and threw the bodies into the pits in the hope that the smoke would ward of the disease.
Green Park. Discovered in the 1960 during construction of the Victoria Line.
St Giles-in-the-Fields. It is said over 1000 people were buried in pits in the churchyard.
Bakerloo Line, London Depot. At the south end of the depot lie two tunnels; one leads to Elephant and Castle whilst the other is a dead end and acts as a runaway lane for trains that are unable to stop. Behind the walls of this tunnel lies a plague pit.
Crossbones Graveyard. Leased to the churchwardens of St Saviour’s parish in 1665 during the height of the Great Plague. Used later as a burial place for prostitutes.
Upper Street, Angel. A small triangular piece of land now known as Islington Green covers the area of the plague pit.
St John’s church, Scrandrett Street, Wapping.
Hoxton, Pitfield Street, Hackney. Now covered by a council estate. A sign has been erected by Hackney Council asking residents to ‘Please Keep off the Grass. This is one of many burial grounds pertaining to the Black Plague 1665-1666′.
Whitechapel. Now covered by Sainsbury’s Supermarket.
Aldgate Station. This pit was the overspill from the large pit in the nearby churchyard of St Botolph without Aldgate. This pit about 40 foot long, 15 or 16 foot broad, and 20 foot deep, and between the 6th and the 20th of September, 1,114 bodies were thrown into it (14). Discovered in the 1860s when the station was being constructed. Daniel Defoe who must have heard it described by survivors of the plague wrote ‘A terrible pit it was, and I could not resist my curiosity to go and see it. As near as I may judge, it was about forty feet in length, and about fifteen or sixteen feet broad, and at the time I first looked at it, about nine feet deep; but it was said they dug it near twenty feet deep afterwards in one part of it, till they could go no deeper for the water; for they had, it seems, dug several large pits before this. For though the plague was long a-coming to our parish, yet, when it did come, there was no parish in or about London where it raged with such violence as in the two parishes of Aldgate and Whitechappel.’
LIVERPOOL STREET STATION. Stands on the site of the burial ground of old Bethlem/Bedlam hospital. Mentioned by Defoe. The skeletons of 45 Plague victims were discovered in one grave during the building of the Elizabeth line. Archaeologist believe there were originally more than 100 victims buried in layers one on top of the other. This pit lay not far from the Hand Alley pit mentioned above.
WALTHAMSTOW, VINEGAR ALLEY. According to local tradition there was a plague pit north of the ancient St Mary’s Church. The lane running alongside was named after the vinegar that it was believed might ward of the pestilence.
For more sites of plague pits visit The Reputed Plague Pits of London which has an interactive map.
- History of England. London in 1685. Lord Macaulay.
- The Great Plague of London p.p 13.14. 1924. Walter Bell George Bell.
- The Great Plague of London.p.107. Quoting from A Looking Glass for London 1665.
- The Plague in England. History Today Vol 30. Issue 4. April 1980. Anne Roberts.
- The Great Plague of London p.247. Walter George Bell.
- Certain Necessary Directions 1665
- Observations p.46. John Graunt
- Diary, January 30 1666.
- Tower Hamlets Independent and East London Advertiser on the 19th October 1901 cited by alondoninheritance.com
- The Tunnel Through Time p. 133. Gillian Tindell.
- The Great Plague of London p.282. Walter Bell
- London’s Burial Grounds. Mrs Basil Humes.
- History of England. London in 1685. Lord Macaulay
- The London Burial Grounds, Notes on Their History from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Isabella M. Holmes.
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