History of the Plague in England

§ 1

Daniel Defoe

IT WAS about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbors, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought (some said from Italy, others from the Levant) among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others, from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.

We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days, to spread rumors and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practiced since. But such things as those were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now. But it seems that the government had a true account of it, and several counsels were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumor died off again; and people began to forget it, as a thing we were very little concerned in and that we hoped was not true, till the latter end of November or the beginning of December, 1664, when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Longacre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane. The family they were in endeavored to conceal it as much as possible; but, as it had gotten some vent in the discourse of the neighborhood, the secretaries of state got knowledge of it. And concerning themselves to inquire about it, in order to be certain of the truth, two physicians and a surgeon were ordered to go to the house, and make inspection. This they did, and finding evident tokens of the sickness upon both the bodies that were dead, they gave their opinions publicly that they died of the plague. Whereupon it was given in to the parish clerk, and he also returned them to the hall; and it was printed in the weekly bill of mortality in the usual manner, thus:—


The people showed a great concern at this, and began to be alarmed all over the town, and the more because in the last week in December, 1664, another man died in the same house and of the same distemper. And then we were easy again for about six weeks, when, none having died with any marks of infection, it was said the distemper was gone; but after that, I think it was about the 12th of February, another died in another house, but in the same parish and in the same manner.

This turned the people’s eyes pretty much towards that end of the town; and, the weekly bills showing an increase of burials in St. Giles’s Parish more than usual, it began to be suspected that the plague was among the people at that end of the town, and that many had died of it, though they had taken care to keep it as much from the knowledge of the public as possible. This possessed the heads of the people very much; and few cared to go through Drury Lane, or the other streets suspected, unless they had extraordinary business that obliged them to it.

This increase of the bills stood thus: the usual number of burials in a week, in the parishes of St. Giles-in-the-Fields and St. Andrew’s, Holborn, were from twelve to seventeen or nineteen each, few more or less; but, from the time that the plague first began in St. Giles’s Parish, it was observed that the ordinary burials increased in number considerably. For example:—

Dec. 27 to Jan. 3, St. Giles’s    16
 St. Andrew’s    17
Jan. 3 to Jan. 10, St. Giles’s    12
 St. Andrew’s    25
Jan. 10 to Jan. 17, St. Giles’s    18
 St. Andrew’s    18
Jan. 17 to Jan. 24, St. Giles’s    23
 St. Andrew’s    16
Jan. 24 to Jan. 31, St. Giles’s    24
 St. Andrew’s    15
Jan. 31 to Feb. 7, St. Giles’s    21
 St. Andrew’s    23
Feb. 7 to Feb. 14, St. Giles’s    24
Whereof one of the plague.

The like increase of the bills was observed in the parishes of St. Bride’s, adjoining on one side of Holborn Parish, and in the parish of St. James’s, Clerkenwell, adjoining on the other side of Holborn; in both which parishes the usual numbers that died weekly were from four to six or eight, whereas at that time they were increased as follows:—

Dec. 20 to Dec. 27, St. Bride’s    0
 St. James’s    8
Dec. 27 to Jan. 3, St. Bride’s    6
 St. James’s    9
Jan. 3 to Jan. 10, St. Bride’s    11
 St. James’s    7
Jan. 10 to Jan. 17, St. Bride’s    12
 St. James’s    9
Jan. 17 to Jan. 24, St. Bride’s    9
 St. James’s    15
Jan. 24 to Jan. 31, St. Bride’s    8
 St. James’s    12
Jan. 31 to Feb. 7, St. Bride’s    13
 St. James’s    5
Feb. 7 to Feb. 14, St. Bride’s    12
 St. James’s    6

Besides this, it was observed, with great uneasiness by the people, that the weekly bills in general increased very much during these weeks, although it was at a time of the year when usually the bills are very moderate.

The usual number of burials within the bills of mortality for a week was from about two hundred and forty, or thereabouts, to three hundred. The last was esteemed a pretty high bill; but after this we found the bills successively increasing, as follows:—

Dec. 20 to Dec. 27    291    0
Dec. 27 to Jan. 3    349    58
Jan. 3 to Jan. 10    394    45
Jan. 10 to Jan. 17    415    21
Jan. 17 to Jan. 24    447    59

This last bill was really frightful, being a higher number than had been known to have been buried in one week since the preceding visitation of 1656.

However, all this went off again; and the weather proving cold, and the frost, which began in December, still continuing very severe, even till near the end of February, attended with sharp though moderate winds, the bills decreased again, and the city grew healthy; and everybody began to look upon the danger as good as over, only that still the burials in St. Giles’s continued high. From the beginning of April, especially, they stood at twenty-five each week, till the week from the 18th to the 25th, when there was buried in St. Giles’s Parish thirty, whereof two of the plague, and eight of the spotted fever (which was looked upon as the same thing); likewise the number that died of the spotted fever in the whole increased, being eight the week before, and twelve the week above named.

This alarmed us all again; and terrible apprehensions were among the people, especially the weather being now changed and growing warm, and the summer being at hand. However, the next week there seemed to be some hopes again: the bills were low; the number of the dead in all was but 388; there was none of the plague, and but four of the spotted fever.

But the following week it returned again, and the distemper was spread into two or three other parishes, viz., St. Andrew’s, Holborn, St. Clement’s-Danes; and, to the great affliction of the city, one died within the walls, in the parish of St. Mary-Wool-Church, that is to say, in Bearbinder Lane, near Stocks Market: in all, there were nine of the plague, and six of the spotted fever. It was, however, upon inquiry, found that this Frenchman who died in Bearbinder Lane was one who, having lived in Longacre, near the infected houses, had removed for fear of the distemper, not knowing that he was already infected.

This was the beginning of May, yet the weather was temperate, variable, and cool enough, and people had still some hopes. That which encouraged them was, that the city was healthy. The whole ninety-seven parishes buried but fifty-four, and we began to hope, that, as it was chiefly among the people at that end of the town, it might go no farther; and the rather, because the next week, which was from the 9th of May to the 16th, there died but three, of which not one within the whole city or liberties; and St. Andrew’s buried but fifteen, which was very low. It is true, St. Giles’s buried two and thirty; but still, as there was but one of the plague, people began to be easy. The whole bill also was very low: for the week before, the bill was but three hundred and forty-seven; and the week above mentioned, but three hundred and forty-three. We continued in these hopes for a few days; but it was but for a few, for the people were no more to be deceived thus. They searched the houses, and found that the plague was really spread every way, and that many died of it every day; so that now all our extenuations abated, and it was no more to be concealed. Nay, it quickly appeared that the infection had spread itself beyond all hopes of abatement; that in the parish of St. Giles’s it was gotten into several streets, and several families lay all sick together; and accordingly, in the weekly bill for the next week, the thing began to show itself. There was indeed but fourteen set down of the plague, but this was all knavery and collusion; for St. Giles’s Parish, they buried forty in all, whereof it was certain most of them died of the plague, though they were set down of other distempers. And though the number of all the burials were not increased above thirty-two, and the whole bill being but three hundred and eighty-five, yet there was fourteen of the spotted fever, as well as fourteen of the plague; and we took it for granted, upon the whole, that there were fifty died that week of the plague.

The next bill was from the 23d of May to the 30th, when the number of the plague was seventeen; but the burials in St. Giles’s were fifty-three, a frightful number, of whom they set down but nine of the plague. But on an examination more strictly by the justices of the peace, and at the lord mayor’s request, it was found there were twenty more who were really dead of the plague in that parish, but had been set down of the spotted fever, or other distempers, besides others concealed.

But those were trifling things to what followed immediately after. For now the weather set in hot; and from the first week in June, the infection spread in a dreadful manner, and the bills rise high; the articles of the fever, spotted fever, and teeth, began to swell: for all that could conceal their distempers did it to prevent their neighbors shunning and refusing to converse with them, and also to prevent authority shutting up their houses, which, though it was not yet practiced, yet was threatened; and people were extremely terrified at the thoughts of it.

The second week in June, the parish of St. Giles’s, where still the weight of the infection lay, buried one hundred and twenty, whereof, though the bills said but sixty-eight of the plague, everybody said there had been a hundred at least, calculating it from the usual number of funerals in that parish as above.

Till this week the city continued free, there having never any died except that one Frenchman, who I mentioned before, within the whole ninety-seven parishes. Now, there died four within the city,—one in Wood Street, one in Fenchurch Street, and two in Crooked Lane. Southwark was entirely free, having not one yet died on that side of the water.

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