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Cholera Epidemics in the 19th Century

The Great Plague of London, 1665

The Boston Smallpox Epidemic, 1721

“Pestilence” and the Printed Books of the Late 15th Century

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Syphilis, 1494–1923

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The Great Plague of London, 1665

Old Saint Paul’s: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire. London: Parry, Blenkarn & Co., 1847. London: Printed for W. Nicoll, 1769. From the holdings of Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library—Harvard College Library
Old Saint Paul’s: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire. From the holdings of Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library—Harvard College Library.

The Great Plague of London in 1665 was the last in a long series of plague epidemics that first began in London in June 1499. The Great Plague killed between 75,000 and 100,000 of London’s rapidly expanding population of about 460,000.

First suspected in late 1664, London’s plague began to spread in earnest eastwards in April 1665 from the destitute suburb of St. Giles through rat-infested alleys to the crowded and squalid parishes of Whitechapel and Stepney on its way to the walled City of London.

The Great Plague at Its Peak

By September 1665, the death rate had reached 8,000 per week. Helpless municipal authorities threw their earlier caution to the wind and abandoned quarantine measures. Houses containing the dead and dying were no longer locked. London’s mournful silence was broken by the noise of carts carrying the dead for burial in parish churches or communal plague pits such as Finsbury Field in Cripplegate and the open fields in Southwark.

Well-off residents soon fled to the countryside, leaving the poor behind in impoverished and decrepit parishes. Tens of thousands of dogs and cats were killed to eliminate a feared source of contagion, and mounds of rotting garbage were burned. Purveyors of innumerable remedies proliferated, and physicians and surgeons lanced buboes and bled black spots in attempts to cure plague victims by releasing bad bodily humors.

Plague Orders, first issued by the Privy Council in 1578, were still effective in 1665. These edicts prohibited churches from keeping dead bodies on their premises during public assemblies or services, and carriers of the dead had to identify themselves and could not mix with the public.

Samuel Pepys and William Boghurst: Eyewitness Accounts

In his famous diary, Samuel Pepys, a naval administrator and Member of Parliament, conveyed the melancholy image of desperate people wandering the streets in search of relief from the ravages of the plague. His notes during 1665 often intimate the severity of London’s Great Plague epidemic. In July, he lamented “the sad news of the death of so many in the parish of the plague, forty last night, the bell always going . . . either for deaths or burials.” A month later, when London’s mortality rate rose sharply, Pepys noted that survivors “are fain to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not sufficing to do it in.”

In another eyewitness account, Loimographia (1665), William Boghurst, a general practitioner who accurately described the symptoms of plague and predicted its demise in 1666, attributed the plague’s causes to filth and squalor, inadequate disposal of sewage, and poor nutrition among London’s impoverished residents. He criticized the standard treatments of bleeding, purging, and fumigating houses and objected to quarantining infected households since this had “oft [been] enough tried and always found ineffectual.”

The Plague Subsides and the Government Reacts

By February 1666, the Great Plague had nearly run its course. It died out during the Great Fire that same year and never returned. Central parts of London were rebuilt with wider streets to relieve crowding and better sewage systems to improve sanitation. London’s Privy Council issued new Plague Orders in May 1666, which banned the burial of future plague victims in parish churches and small churchyards, enforced the use of quicklime at designated burial sites, and strictly prohibited opening graves less than one year after interment as a safeguard against the spread of infection.

The Great Plague in Fictional Literature

The Great Plague appears in fictional works, such as William Harrison Ainsworth’s Old Saint Paul’s (1847) and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), in which he describes London as “quite abandoned to despair.”

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Selected Contagion Resources

This is a partial list of digitized materials available in Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. For additional materials on the topic “The Great Plague of London, 1665,” click here or search the collection’s Catalog and Full Text databases.

Web Pages

Concepts of Contagion and Epidemics
“Pestilence” and the Printed Books of the Late 15th Century
Public Health
Humoral Theory

Publications

Garencières, Theophilus. A Mite Cast into the Treasury of the Famous City of London: Being a Brief and Methodical Discourse of the Nature, Causes, Symptomes, Remedies and Preservation from the Plague, in This Calamitous Year, 1665. London: 1665.
Gadbury, John. London’s Deliverance Predicted: In a Short Discourse Shewing the Causes of Plagues in General and the Probable Time (God Not Contradicting the Course of Second Causes) When This Present Pest May Abate, etc. London: 1665.
Rosewell, Thomas. The Causes & Cure of the Pestilence, or, a Brief Collection of Those Provoking Sins Recorded in the Holy Scriptures, for Which the Lord Hath Usually Sent the Sore Destroying Pestilence or Plague Among a People: Together with Some Special Receipts and Preservativies [sic] against the Further Encrease of This Pestilential Disease, and May Serve as a Seasonable Call from the Lord to Invite All Sorts of People to a Speedy Return unto the Lord, and a Forsaking of Those Sins, Which Otherwise Will Cause the Wrath of the Lord to Break Out Among Us, So That There Will Be No Remedy. London: 1665.
Royal College of Physicians of London. Certain Necessary Directions as Well for the Cure of the Plague, as for Preventing the Infection: With Many Easie Medicines of Small Charge, Very Profitable to His Majesties Subjects. 1665.

The Great Plague at Its Peak

The Shutting Up Infected Houses as It Is Practised in England Soberly Debated: By Way of Address from the Poor Souls That Are Visited, to Their Brethren That Are Free: With Observations on the Wayes Whereby the Present Infection Hath Spread: As Also a Certain Method of Diet, Attendance, Lodging and Physick, Experimented in the Recovery of Many Sick Persons. London: 1665.
W. J. A Collection of Seven and Fifty Approved Receipts Good Against the Plague: Taken Out of the Five Books of That Renowned Dr. Don Alexes Secrets, for the Benefit of the Poorer Sort of People of These Nations. London: 1665.

Samuel Pepys and William Boghurst: Eyewitness Accounts

Braybrooke, Richard Lord, ed. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Esq., F.R.S., from 1659 to 1669: With Memoir. London: F. Warne, [1887?].
Boghurst, William. Loimographia: An Account of the Great Plague of London in the Year 1665. London: Shaw, 1894.

The Great Plague in Fictional Literature

Ainsworth, William Harrison. Old Saint Paul’s: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire. London: Parry, Blenkarn and Co., 1847.
Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as Well Publick as Private, Which Happened in London During the Last Great Visitation in 1665: Written by a Citizen Who Continued All the While in London: Never Made Publick Before. London; New York: George Routledge & Sons, 1886.

References

The following sources were used in writing this page.

Hays, J. N. Epidemics and Pandemics: Their Impacts on Human History. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2005.
Inwood, Stephen. A History of London. London: Macmillan, 1998.
Moote, A. Lloyd and Dorothy C. Moote. The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Nicholson, Watson. The Historical Sources of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Illustrated by Extracts from the Original Documents in the Burney Collection and Manuscript Room in the British Museum. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1966.
Slack, Paul. The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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