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.

Cholera in Hampstead and spread of disease

THIS IS NOT ABOUT our current plague, the covid19 pandemic, but an earlier one that occurred occasionally in the 19th century. In many countries today, millions of people live with plague and disease and might even accept it as a part of daily life. Fortunately, until recently this was not the case in the UK. However, in the 19th century when diseases and their transmission were less well understood than currently, living conditions in the UK were considerably less healthy than today, disease was rife, and life expectancy was not great. While walking amongst the picturesque steeply sloping back streets of Hampstead village in North London in late November 2020, we spotted a carved stone plaque high on a wall of a house, currently Heathside Preparatory School, on New End (at the point where the street makes a right angle and becomes north-south instead of east-west).

The plaque reads:

“This building was erected by voluntary contributions for a dispensary and soup kitchen. It was intended as a thank-offering to Almighty God for his special mercy in sparing this parish during the visitation of cholera in the year 1849. The site was purchased in 1850 and the building completed in 1853.

He shall deliver thee from the noisome pestilence. Thomas Ainger M.A. incumbent”

As you will discover soon, not everyone in Hampstead was spared from cholera in 1849. One of those, who was afflicted, not in 1849 but five years later, unwittingly made a great contribution to science.

Thomas Ainger (1799-1863), who was born in Whittlesea, Cambridgeshire and studied at Cambridge University, was awarded ‘perpetual curacy’ of St Mary’s Hampstead in 1841, a position he held until his death (http://hampsteadparishchurch.org.uk/data/magazines_2013.php?id=897). He was:

“An energetic parish priest and poor-law guardian; helped to found schools and a dispensary; enlarged his church and promoted the building of new churches in the district around Hampstead.” (https://venn.lib.cam.ac.uk/).

Today, we can have injections that radically reduce the chances of suffering from cholera, but that was not the case back in 1849, when the mechanism by which the disease spreads was not yet understood. One case of the disease that significantly helped to further knowledge of its spread occurred in Hampstead in 1854.

Dr John Snow (1813-1858), who led the way in hygiene and anaesthesia, suspected that cholera was spread via drinking water. He demonstrated that cases of the disease were clustered around particular water sources. During an outbreak of cholera in 1854 in London’s Soho district, which was centred around a pump in Broad Street, now Broadwick Street, he found that by removing the handle from the pump so that the locals could no longer draw their drinking water from there, the local outbreak of cholera was brought to an end. The pump in Broad Street was only three feet away from a leaking cess pit and its water was contaminated by waste matter (www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/broadstreetpump.html). Snow theorised that the cause of cholera was not as previously thought a ‘miasma’ in the air, but something in drinking water. Now, let Stephanie Snow continue the story (International Journal of Epidemiology, 2002; vol.31: pp 908–911):

“In 1849, the London Medical Gazette had suggested that in regard to Snow’s theory, the experimentum crucis [i.e. critical experiment] would be that the water conveyed to a distant locality where cholera had been hitherto unknown produced the disease in all who used it. One of the cholera victims Snow had traced through his Broad Street investigation was a widow who lived in Hampstead. She had a regular delivery of water from the Broad Street pump as she preferred its taste. Her last delivery was made on 31 August and by 2 September, having drunk the water, she had died from cholera. Snow regarded this as ‘the most conclusive’ of circumstances in proving the connection between the water pump and the cholera outbreak.”

The widow had lived at ‘West End’, which until the 19th century was that name of what is now West Hampstead.

The plaque in New End suggests that Hampstead Parish was ‘spared’ from the cholera in 1849. That was almost true. In that year, Hampstead had 8 deaths from cholera per 10,000, whereas many areas of London reported between 100 and 200 deaths from cholera per 10,000 (www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/publichealth118_387_394_2004.pdf). The rate of cholera fatalities in its area was determined by the location of its drinking water supply.  The uppermost rates of deaths from cholera in 1849 were exceedingly high compared with even the highest rates of covid19 infection anywhere in the UK during the second half of 2020.  

John Snow had been alerted to the existence of the widow in Hampstead by Reverend Henry Whitehead (1825-1896), a vicar in London’s Soho district, who was at first sceptical of Snow’s theory of the water-borne transmission of cholera (http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/whitehead.html) and favoured the idea that cholera existed as an airborne ‘miasma’. Although Snow and Whitehead differed on their ideas on the transmission of cholera, they decided to work together. Peter Daniell and David Markoff provide more detail (www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/cholera-in-london/cholera-in-soho/) about the widow in Hampstead:

“Whitehead was able to tell Snow about a widow living in Hampstead, who had died of cholera on the …  2nd September [i.e. 1854], and her niece, who lived in Islington, who had succumbed with the same symptoms the following day. Since neither of these women had been near Soho for a long time, it was impossible that they could have contracted the disease through breathing in the polluted air of the area. Intrigued, Dr Snow rode up to Hampstead to interview the widow’s son. He discovered from him that the widow had once lived in Broad Street, and that she had liked the taste of the well-water there so much that she had sent her servant down to Soho every day to bring back a large bottle of it for her by cart. The last bottle of water—which her niece had also drunk from—had been fetched on 31st August, at the very start of the Soho epidemic. This was just the sort of evidence he needed to prove the argument of the miasmatists wrong.”

If we had not noticed the plaque in Hampstead, I doubt that I would have become aware of the West End widow’s role in the unravelling of the method of transmission of cholera. Below the plaque and on the same wall, there is a pink granite object, which looks like a broken drinking fountain. This bears the date ‘1859’, five years after the large outbreak in Soho, and I hope that people did not contract cholera by drinking from it. It was in that year, that Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) began his programme of improving London’s sewerage system. This helped to reduce the out breaks of cholera, but there was at least one more in the East End of London in 1866.

Plague and graffiti

MANY ENGLISH CHURCHES REMAIN closed much of the day since the outbreak of the covid19 pandemic. During our recent roving around the countryside, we have found this to be the case and as a result have not been able to enjoy exploring the often interesting historic and architectural features within country (and urban) churches.

Drawing of Old St Pauls Cathedral in the church at Ashwell

When we arrived in the attractive Hertfordshire village of Ashwell near the town of Baldock that lies between London and Cambridge, we were pleased to discover that the Church of St Mary’s (Ashwell) was open. Despite the dustiness created by building works that were in progress, this church contains much of interest. In fact, the builders have uncovered remains of structures that existed possibly prior to the present church’s construction in the 14th century. These remains were revealed to us by a kindly lady, ‘M’, who helps run the church’s administration. She pulled aside some heavy plastic sheets to reveal where the builders had dug beneath the floor.

After viewing the excavations, M drew our attention to the west end of the nave, beneath the bell tower. The north wall of this section of the church has graffiti scratched into its wall. This is not the work of modern vandals but that of people living as long ago as the 14th century, a time of plague, pestilence, and much mortality (the so-called Black Death was at its peak from 1347 to 1351).

Some of the graffiti is in the form of inscriptions in Latin. According to a useful booklet, which we bought at the church, “Ashwell Church. Mediaeval drawings and writings. A Guide” by David Sherlock (publ. 1978), the inscriptions when translated include the following (to quote but a few):

“Just the first plague was in 1349”

“In 1349 there was plague and in ‘50”

“1000, three times 100, five times 10 [i.e. 1350], a pitiable, fierce violeny (plague departed); a wretched populace survives to witness (to the plague) and in the end a mighty wind, Maurus, thunders this year in the world 1361.”

Maurus refers to St Maur (512- c584), a disciple of St Benedict of Nursia. St Maur’s feast day was the 15th of January before 1969 and is now the 22nd of November. According to an article in the Irish Times (16th of January 1998):

“The late 1300s in Ireland were remarkable for the abundant rainfall, and also for a succession of fierce storms which caused frequent and widespread devastation in countryside. One of the worst of these, St Maury’s Wind, occurred on January 15th, 1362, and caused great damage, particularly in Dublin.”

These storms were most likely to have been the same as those recorded on the wall of Ashworth Church.

Fascinating as the inscriptions are, even more interesting is a drawing incised in the wall close to them. Although it is not known when it was drawn, it was probably before 1630. It is a detailed sketch of the old (pre 1666, Fire of London) Gothic St Pauls Cathedral in London. It depicts the old church before Inigo Jones re-faced it in 1630. The drawing includes the spire, which was destroyed by lightning in 1561. One authority has suggested (tentatively) that the drawing might have depicted Westminster Abbey, but this is unlikely even though Ashwell Church was under the control of the Abbott of Westminster until The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540. The drawing in Ashwell has many resemblances to illustrations of the old St Pauls made in about 1550 by the Flemish Anton Van den Wynegaerde (1525-1571), and in 1616 by the British artist John Gipkyn (active 1594-1629). It is unlikely that whoever drew the image in Ashwell would have seen either of these pictures.

In addition to the image of St Pauls and the plague inscriptions, there are many other examples of mediaeval graffiti in the church at Ashwell. If our cousins in Baldock had not recommended us to visit nearby Ashwell, we might never have seen the fascinating graffiti described above. It was particularly poignant to see the souvenirs of plague that occurred so long ago during the current era of plague that is disturbing our lives so much.