The plague of London 1665

1665 was the year of the Great Plague of London, it is not known how many people died, nor where it began.The first cases where it was discovered was in St Giles-in-the Fields, but there were casualties elsewhere before that.

St Giles-in-the-fields
St Giles-in-the-fields. Note the steps to the graveyard which were added due to the rise of bodies buried during the plague.

Before our own Great Plague of London and the world pandemic of 2020, to most of us the plague of 1665 was just an insignificant historical drama, along with other dates we were made to remember, handed down from generations long since past.

But today we are living through the same terrible terrifying experience, which was suffered some 355 years previously. The numbers of dead was estimated to have been somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000, which was more than a fifth of the entire population of London at the time, with the total population of London being less than 500,000.

Samuel Pepys first mentioned the plague in his diary in October 1663 when he recorded a major outbreak in Amsterdam and feared for its spread to England. His anxiety was well founded, for by the spring of 1665, plague had reached these shores, and in June Pepys wrote, ‘to my great trouble, hear that the plague is come into the City’.


Sign of the skulls above the archway to the churchyard of St Olaves, Hart Street,
where Samuel Pepys and his wife are buried

Reading through eyewitness accounts from 1665, like those from Samuel Pepys, it is clear that the same messages we have today was just as relevant. In London, where any house with plague victims a watch was "to keep the people in, the plague making us cruel, as doggs, (sic) one to another." Yet he saw that people showed vast foolishness unless they were restrained, which in doing so would help contain the plague from spreading.

As the bodies piled up, Pepys wrote to a friend, ‘the nights (though much lengthened) are grown too short to conceal the burials of those that died the day before’. He also writes in his diary about the desensitization of people, including himself, to the corpses of plague fatalities, ‘I am come almost to think nothing of it.’

Whilst I was self isolating in my garden, I could hear a young child singing "Ring-a-ring-O'-roses" probably unaware that this children's nursery rhyme with the ending "A tishoo, a tishoo we all fall down" 'Ring-a-ring-o'-roses' is about the plague: The 'roses' are the red blotches on the skin. The 'posies' are the sweet-smelling flowers people carried to try to ward off the plague. 'Atishoo' refers to the sneezing fits of people with Bubonic plague. We all fall down, a reference to how quick death came upon them.


The Spanish flu

The Spanish flu (also known as the 1918 flu pandemic was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic. Lasting from January 1918 to December 1920, it infected 500 million people – about a quarter of the world's population at the time. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

There have been statements that the epidemic originated in the United States. Historian Alfred W. Crosby stated in 2003 that the flu originated in Kansas, and popular author John M. Barry described a January 1918 outbreak in Haskell County, Kansas, as the point of origin in his 2004 article.

A 2018 study of tissue slides and medical reports led by evolutionary biology professor Michael Worobey found evidence against the disease originating from Kansas as those cases were milder and had fewer deaths compared to the situation in New York City in the same time period. The study did find evidence through phylogenetic analyses that the virus likely had a North American origin, though it was not conclusive.


Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus.

Most people infected with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.

The best way to prevent and slow down transmission is be well informed about the COVID-19 virus, the disease it causes and how it spreads. Protect yourself and others from infection by washing your hands or using an alcohol based rub frequently and not touching your face.

The COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so it’s important that you also practice respiratory etiquette (for example, by coughing into a flexed elbow).

At this time, there are no specific vaccines or treatments for COVID-19. However, there are many ongoing clinical trials evaluating potential treatments. WHO will continue to provide updated information as soon as clinical findings become available.

In the United Kingdom the NHS advice is:

Stay at home to stop coronavirus spreading
Everyone must stay at home to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

You should only leave your home for very limited purposes:

shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible one form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household, any medical need, including to donate blood, avoid or escape risk of injury or harm, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person travelling for work purposes, but only where you cannot work from home

Important

These reasons are exceptions – even when doing these activities, you should be minimising time spent outside of the home and ensuring you are 2 metres apart from anyone outside of your household.

How to stop infection spreading

There are things you can do to help reduce the risk of you and anyone you live with getting ill with coronavirus.

Do

wash your hands with soap and water often – do this for at least 20 seconds

use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available

wash your hands as soon as you get home

cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze

put used tissues in the bin immediately and wash your hands afterwards

Don't

do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean

Looking after your wellbeing

To help yourself stay well while you're at home:

stay in touch with family and friends over the phone or on social media,
try to keep yourself busy – you could try activities like cooking, reading, online learning and watching films,
do light exercise at home, or outside once a day – see fitness studio: exercises you can do at home

Together We Can Fight This

As you can see from our brief history of disease and virus, there is nothing new under the sun. We can beat this and get back to normality, just do what's required and KEEP CALM


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