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‘Whole streets in the City were shuttered’ – London during the devastating plague of 1665

24 March 2020

The plague of 1665 came slowly, as they do. It crept up upon an unsuspecting urban population in London, and then roared across the country. We know a surprising amount of the story through two witnesses. Samuel Pepys, diarist supreme, told the story with emotion and detail, and much of what he saw is very well known. Yet the account of his near-contemporary John Evelyn, who had by then become his friend, is different in style and approach, but above all because of the latter’s responsibilities as one of the newly appointed Commissioners of the Sick and Wounded (and prisoners of war) after the Dutch war. He had claimed the position from the Earl of Clarendon, the Lord Chancellor, in autumn 1664, since ‘my dwelling is neere the Towne, and the ordinary station of the navy’.

As we teeter on the brink of our own plague, it is chilling to see history repeating itself. By early July in 1665, there were 725 plague deaths in a week. London was emptying, the restored king moving quickly from Syon House to distant Hampton Court while most men of science, the luminaries of the new Royal Society, headed off to Oxford or even further afield. Christopher Wren went to Paris, armed by Evelyn with all sorts of advice for his travels, and he did not return for many months. Esmond de Beer, indefatigable editor of Evelyn’s mountainous journals, footnoted the official statistics from the Bills of Mortality alongside Evelyn’s guesstimates. By early August the week’s tally in London nudged 3,000, still only 50 per cent of deaths overall, but a month later that had soared to 6,988 of 8,252 deaths in total.

Early September saw Evelyn travelling from Borough to St James’s. ‘Cofines exposed in the Streetes & the streete thin of people, the shops shut up, & all in Mournefull silence, as not knowing whose turne might be next.’ Evelyn was now trying to secure a ‘pest ship’ for his infected seamen. The ports on the Thames were deadly centres and Evelyn’s direct experience of the plague was played out largely in Deptford and Greenwich. His days were punishing for a 45-year-old man, and one evening he fainted during dinner. His family was alarmed, guessing that he must be falling sick ‘coming so lately from infected places’. But it was sheer exhaustion; he lived another 40 years.

Scenes in London during the plague of 1665. Facsimile reproduction from a pictorial broadside of 1665-66. Wellcome Collection, London.

Scenes in London during the plague of 1665. Facsimile reproduction from a pictorial broadside of 1665-66. Wellcome Collection, London. Used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY 4.o)

Many people tried to flee to the countryside, and Essex was particularly convenient, whether they were travelling by road or water. Inevitably early major epicentres of the disease were Colchester and Braintree. The crisis brought out the best and worst in the population. A kindly captain at Wivenhoe, near Colchester, helped sick passengers land from a packet boat while a colleague stood his ground as an official tried to prevent them from landing. Both men were arrested and taken to stand trial at the Colchester Quarter Sessions; the outcome is unknown.

The insidious fear of Londoners, and London as seat of the plague, led Samuel Pepys to be sparing with the truth. Asked if he lived there, he told his interrogators that his only home was in Woolwich, confiding the shameful fib to his diary (having sent his wife Elisabeth to Woolwich, he himself remained in the City). But Pepys, who first met John Evelyn that year, has left the best known and most vivid picture of Londoners caught in the trap of disease. At the very first warning, seeing a red cross painted on a door and immediately fearing the worst, Pepys bought a roll of tobacco, both to chew and as a cover for the smell of disease. By late June ‘the sickness encreasing mightily’, he realised it had been a considerable risk to travel home late at night by hackney-coach. Soon special pest-coaches were introduced and any vehicle likely to have been infected was left to air for several days, by City ordnance. Pepys himself did not take a coach again until late November and still found it a fearful experience.

Whole streets in the City were shuttered and even the Spring Gardens at Vauxhall were all but deserted. Parks and gardens, as we too have seen, were little safer than ordinary thoroughfares. Coming home one evening, Pepys almost tripped on a corpse lying in an alley near his landing stage on the river: ‘I shall beware of being late abroad again.’ The atmosphere was one of mounting panic, every day ‘sadder and sadder’ as plague spread around the country. The true numbers were impossible to calculate, due to the swathes it cut through the poor while ‘Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them’ could not be counted.

But then, in mid September, Pepys’s mood was transformed by news of ‘the first decrease we have yet had in the sickness since it began’. His survival, ‘the joy, health and profit’ of the previous three months, left him elated as he went to bed, with his wife, on the last day of September. Covid-19 may be new, but nothing else is.

Gillian Darley’s biography of John Evelyn is published by Yale University Press.