A year of plague

BY THE SUMMER, five hundred people were dying every week in London. The fatalities included both the rich and the poor. Parliament was moved from the capital to the city of Oxford. By July, the plague was destroying the city of London and every Londoner became regarded as a potential carrier of the disease. Towns such as Bristol would not admit Londoners unless they had proof that they were free of contamination. This proof was in the form of a document issued by the Mayor of London, in whose own household illness was rife. Towns near London shut their doors to Londoners and their citizens stayed at home.

In London, volunteer searchers inspected every house and whenever they came across one in which at least one resident had signs of the disease, they posted a notice above the door. This bore the words “God have mercy on us.” Then, two soldiers were posted by the entrance of each affected house to make sure that no one entered or left.  By August, the theatres, inns, and markets were closed in London. When business was conducted, coinage used to pay for goods was dropped into a tub of water by the customer and then retrieved by the vendor or supplier. Nobody touched the hands of another. Later that month, terrified Londoners began fleeing from the diseased city, but they were turned away from wherever they went. By September, 5000 Londoners were dying each week. Schools were closed. As a result, schoolteachers applied to the government for financial relief.

What I have been describing is nothing to do with the current covid19 pandemic, even if there are some remarkable similarities. Also, when considering the number of deaths, it is worth noting that London’s population in 1625 was about 300,000. It refers to a plague (possibly bubonic) that afflicted London in 1625. The information I have given has been extracted from a book that I am reading at the moment: a biography of Sir Harry Vane (1613-1662) by the historians JH Adamson and HF Folland, both professors at the University of Utah in the USA.

And, why, you might wonder, am I reading a book about a man whose existence was unknown to me less than a couple of months ago. The answer lies in Hampstead in north London. I was brought up in this part of the metropolis and recently have been revisiting old haunts and thus begun to become interested in Hampstead’s rich history. It was whilst rambling around Hampstead one cold February morning that I saw a gatepost (near the upper end of Rosslyn Hill) with a commemorative plaque. This memorial recorded the fact that the gate post was all that remained of the house in which Sir Harry Vane, politician and for some time a Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, resided for some time before his arrest (ordered by King Charles II), trial, and execution.

What struck me when reading about the plague of 1625 and comparing it with what we are facing currently was how similar were some of the actions taken then with those taken now, almost 400 years later. By the way, in case you were wondering, the 1625 plague subsided almost completely by November that year and that was without any vaccines being available.