Tracking Epidemic Disease in 17th Century London

Two panels from a contemporary broadsheet that shows the role and activities of the Searchers

Two panels from a contemporary broadsheet (1665/6) showing the work of the Searchers who collected the cause of death data for the Bills of Mortality: in the lefthand panel they are present in a house afflicted by plague, while in the righthand panel the women walk the streets of London carrying their ‘wands of office’. [Nine images of the plague in London, 17th century]. Wellcome Collection. (CC BY 4.0)

I’ve so far resisted writing about the Bills of Mortality and plague and Covid-19, I don’t have a great deal of time for historians who jump on bandwagons (especially when they do so outside their specific area of expertise) but I do think to reflect in a thoughtful and measured way in response to contemporary events is an essential historical activity and as the lockdown and isolation drag on, I feel that I may have something to offer. So, I’ll drop a blog post here on just this topic. Read it if you want to but if you feel it’s not yet time for reflection then by all means leave it for later.

Rather than revelling in the massive numbers of plague casualties that the Bills stand witness to, and which are undoubtedly the most over-reproduced images of the weekly Bills across all types of outputs, I want to focus on the efforts that were made to identify and track the earliest occurrences of plague deaths. As we are all aware obtaining a true picture of contagion and associated death rates during an epidemic is far from easy – and it wasn’t easy for seventeenth-century Londoners either. But that is precisely what the Bills of Mortality were for.

The Bills, or at least the organised collection of cause of death information, was established at the end of the sixteenth century by the rulers of the City of London expressly to forewarn of plague. Clearly, my own use of Bills data, to support an understanding of early modern accidents, is tangential to this primary foundational purpose. While it’s possible to have some confidence in the accuracy of the Bills when reporting an accidental death, the veracity of the observations of the Searchers and the reporting by the Parish Clerks become more problematic during times of epidemic. Indeed, many early plague deaths remained unreported as such during the opening months of 1665 as London’s Great Plague became established. Whether this ‘failure’ was the result of corruption amongst Searchers and Clerks, misguided attempts to protect the character of their parishes and neighbourhoods, or simple incompetence/omission in a pressured environment is impossible to tell. Nevertheless, such failures, or the perception of them, came to taint the servants of this system through the eyes of commentators and later historians despite good evidence that outside of times of crisis the system worked well, albeit within the limits of early modern medical diagnostics.

There is some evidence to support the belief that the presence of plague in London was appreciated, at least in governmental circles, earlier than the Bills report the first deaths. During April the Privy Council discussed events in St Giles in the Fields after the first households were shut up and which resulted in neighbours riotously ‘liberating’ the infected inhabitants. And by 12 May the King and his advisors had decided to form a special Committee of the Privy Council ‘to consider of the best means of preventing the spreading of the infection of the plague’. The most senior members of King Charles II’s court/government were to attend and they, in turn, called for expert guidance from leading physicians. Their most immediate instructions were for the obviously infected parish of St Giles in the Fields to enforce household quarantines and to set about building a new/temporary ‘pest house’ to help cope with the expected wave of infections.

Private correspondence from the time also talks of the wider circulation of plague before it became an established feature of the Bills of Mortality. For example, during April and May John Allin, a former vicar of Rye in Sussex who was then resident in Southwark, noted in his correspondence that he ‘heard yesterday there are 2 houses shut up in Drury Lane for the sickness’ – this was on 27 April. In a perceptive comment he noted on 26 May that ‘ye bill mentioned 3 last weeke, and 14 this weeke, but its rather believed to be treble the number’.

Bill of Mortality listing of parish mortality from 2nd May to the 9th 1665

Bill of Mortality for Week Commencing 2 May 1665 – London’s Dreadful Visitation: or, a Collection of all the Bills of Mortality for this Present Year [London: Printed by E[leanor] Cotes (for the Company of Parish Clerks), 1665]. Wellcome Collection. (CC BY 4.0).

If, however, we take the Bills of Mortality at face value then it is possible to drill down to the level of parish records to identify individual incidents. According to the Bills, the first significant reporting of plague came during the week commencing 2 May 1665. The Bill of Mortality for that week reported one plague death in St Andrew Holborn, three in St Giles in the Fields and 4 in St Clements Danes. These were all external to the boundary of the City of London and appear to have been perceived, at least by London’s elite, as of little consequence. In a similar way, the single plague death reported from the parish of St Mary Woolchurch which lay within the City walls was considered to have represented either an interloper from Westminster or the result of a simple misdiagnosis. The parish burial register provides no further clarification simply naming the plague sufferer as John May, who was buried on the 6 May.

The St Andrew Holborn burial was however more emphatically noted as the parish’s first plague death. On 2 May ‘Rose Farmer, a girl aged about 12 years of age’ who lived in Robin Hood Court off Shoe Lane was laid to rest, her register entry being supplemented with an emphatic marginal note that simply read ‘Plague’.

Extract from the parish burial register for St Andrew Holborn

Burial Register for St Andrew Holborn: LMA P82/AND/A/010/MS06673 [1653-1672]

The first publicly acknowledged cases within the City walls were noted during the first week of June. At this point reported metropolitan plague deaths had reached 112, breaking past the 100 deaths figure that Sir William Petty proposed as the marker of a confirmed plague epidemic.

Bill of Mortality showing parish mortality from the 6th of June to the 13th 1665

Bill of Mortality for Week Commencing 6 June 1665 London’s Dreadful Visitation [1665]. Wellcome Collection. (CC BY 4.0)

Two intra-mural deaths were reported as plague by the Bills, one in St Alban Wood Street the other at St Gabriel Fenchurch Street. The former was not noted as plague in the relevant burial register however there is circumstantial evidence that of the four burials that week the plague victim was probably ‘Mr Tyros Maid’. The unfortunate servant was interred on 10 June, and so would have been reported within the Bill for the week commencing 6 June, but her death had been preceded in that particular household by ‘Mr Tyros Man’ some two weeks earlier. It is therefore entirely possible that he was, in fact, the first resident of the City of London to succumb to plague, being buried on 26 May.

Burial register for St Alban Wood Street from 13th May to 13th June 1665

Burial Register for St Alban Wood Street: LMA P69/ALB/A/001/MS06527 [1662-1786]

Coincidentally, the reported plague victim at St Gabriel Fenchurch Street was also buried on 10 June and was also a servant. William Passon was employed by Dr Alexander Burnett who had the singular distinction of being Samuel Pepys physician. As a result, Pepys noted in his journal ‘In the evening home to supper; and there, to my great trouble, hear that the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City [i.e. in the suburbs]); but where should it begin but in my good friend and neighbour’s, Dr. Burnett, in Fenchurch Street: which in both points troubles me mightily.’ Burnett was praised by his neighbours for shutting up his house voluntarily once plague was diagnosed – he in effect self-isolated. While Burnett did not contract the disease at that point in time, he did succumb to it later in the year. Pepys diary entry for 25 August notes ‘I am told that Dr. Burnett, my physician, is this morning dead of the plague; which is strange, his man dying so long ago, and his house this month open again. Now himself dead. Poor unfortunate man!’

Entry for 10th June 1665 from the burial register of St Gabriel Fenchurch Street

Burial Register of St Gabriel Fenchurch Street: Entry dated 10 June 1665 – LMA P69/GAB/A/001/MS05293 [1571-1709]

Entry from the burial register for the parish of St Gabriel Fenchurch Street for 25th August 1665

Burial Register of St Gabriel Fenchurch Street: Entry dated 25 August 1665 – LMA P69/GAB/A/001/MS05293 [1571-1709]

From this point forward the Bills regularly reported plague deaths reaching a peak in mid-September when a weekly toll of 7,165 plague deaths was reported. Burials of plague victims continued in significant numbers through to the end of the year and in some parishes into early 1666.

Several writers and historians have used the Bills of Mortality to illustrate narrative accounts of the Great Plague and, more recently, to critically analyse the origins, progress and eventual decline of the epidemic. Indeed contemporaries, those who lived through the trauma of 1665, also made good use of the Bills to help them make sense of the extraordinary mortality of that year. Among narrative accounts, two stand out: Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year (published in 1722) and Walter George Bell’s The Great Plague in London (1924). A more recent and wider-ranging account can be found in The Great Plague (1999) and The Plagues of London (2008) both by Stephen Porter. For a more in-depth and critical discussion, attention should be paid to The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (1990) by Paul Slack and London’s Dreaded Visitation: The Social Geography of the Great Plague of 1665 (1995) by Justin Champion.

The past provides a mirror against which we can consider our own actions and behaviours, from personal, national and international perspectives. The response to plague in the seventeenth century provides a number of surprising parallels to our current pandemic concerns – government emergency committees, self-isolation and quarantining, temporary ‘hospitals’, and the challenge of enumerating deaths and tracking disease spread (there is also a range of blaming behaviours which I haven’t had space to consider here but which in the seventeenth century were as equally flawed as those of the present-day). Nevertheless, such parallels are merely echoes from a different time, at once familiar and yet equally distant. What changes is the way we (or at least most of us) think about the crisis we face and how to cope with it as an immediate medical and social challenge, and the various paths we might follow going forward. History, and historians, can help us review, evaluate and where necessary challenge such responses now and in the future.

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