History of the Plague in England

§ 3

Daniel Defoe

ALL THIS was the effect of the hurry the people were in, after the first notion of the plague being at hand was among them, and which may be said to be from about Michaelmas, 1664, but more particularly after the two men died in St. Giles’s, in the beginning of December; and again after another alarm in February, for when the plague evidently spread itself, they soon began to see the folly of trusting to these unperforming creatures who had gulled them of their money; and then their fears worked another way, namely, to amazement and stupidity, not knowing what course to take or what to do, either to help or to relieve themselves; but they ran about from one neighbor’s house to another, and even in the streets, from one door to another, with repeated cries of, “Lord, have mercy upon us! What shall we do?”

I am supposing, now, the plague to have begun, as I have said, and that the magistrates began to take the condition of the people into their serious consideration. What they did as to the regulation of the inhabitants, and of infected families, I shall speak to by itself; but as to the affair of health, it is proper to mention here my having seen the foolish humor of the people in running after quacks, mountebanks, wizards, and fortune tellers, which they did, as above, even to madness. The lord mayor, a very sober and religious gentleman, appointed physicians and surgeons for the relief of the poor, I mean the diseased poor, and in particular ordered the College of Physicians to publish directions for cheap remedies for the poor in all the circumstances of the distemper. This, indeed, was one of the most charitable and judicious things that could be done at that time; for this drove the people from haunting the doors of every disperser of bills, and from taking down blindly and without consideration, poison for physic, and death instead of life.

This direction of the physicians was done by a consultation of the whole college; and as it was particularly calculated for the use of the poor, and for cheap medicines, it was made public, so that everybody might see it, and copies were given gratis to all that desired it. But as it is public and to be seen on all occasions, I need not give the reader of this the trouble of it.

It remains to be mentioned now what public measures were taken by the magistrates for the general safety and to prevent the spreading of the distemper when it broke out. I shall have frequent occasion to speak of the prudence of the magistrates, their charity, their vigilance for the poor and for preserving good order, furnishing provisions, and the like, when the plague was increased as it afterwards was. But I am now upon the order and regulations which they published for the government of infected families.

I mentioned above shutting of houses up, and it is needful to say something particularly to that; for this part of the history of the plague is very melancholy. But the most grievous story must be told.

About June, the lord mayor of London, and the court of aldermen, as I have said, began more particularly to concern themselves for the regulation of the city.

The justices of the peace for Middlesex, by direction of the secretary of state, had begun to shut up houses in the parishes of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, St. Martin’s, St. Clement’s-Danes, etc., and it was with good success; for in several streets where the plague broke out, upon strict guarding the houses that were infected, and taking care to bury those that died as soon as they were known to be dead, the plague ceased in those streets. It was also observed that the plague decreased sooner in those parishes after they had been visited to the full than it did in the parishes of Bishopsgate, Shoreditch, Aldgate, Whitechapel, Stepney, and others; the early care taken in that manner being a great means to the putting a check to it.

This shutting up of the houses was a method first taken, as I understand, in the plague which happened in 1603, at the coming of King James I. to the crown; and the power of shutting people up in their own houses was granted by act of Parliament, entitled “An Act for the Charitable Relief and Ordering of Persons Infected with Plague.” On which act of Parliament the lord mayor and aldermen of the city of London founded the order they made at this time, and which took place the 1st of July, 1665, when the numbers of infected within the city were but few; the last bill for the ninety-two parishes being but four, and some houses having been shut up in the city, and some people being removed to the pesthouse beyond Bunhill Fields, in the way to Islington. I say by these means, when there died near one thousand a week in the whole, the number in the city was but twenty-eight; and the city was preserved more healthy, in proportion, than any other place all the time of the infection.

These orders of my lord mayor’s were published, as I have said, the latter end of June, and took place from the 1st of July, and were as follow: viz.,—


Whereas in the reign of our late sovereign King James, of happy memory, an act was made for the charitable relief and ordering of persons infected with the plague; whereby authority was given to justices of the peace, mayors, bailiffs, and other head officers, to appoint within their several limits examiners, searchers, watchmen, keepers, and buriers, for the persons and places infected, and to minister unto them oaths for the performance of their offices; and the same statute did also authorize the giving of their directions as unto them for other present necessity should seem good in their discretions: it is now, upon special consideration, thought very expedient, for preventing and avoiding of infection of sickness (if it shall please Almighty God), that these officers following be appointed, and these orders hereafter duly observed.

Examiners to be appointed to every Parish.

First, it is thought requisite, and so ordered, that in every parish there be one, two, or more persons of good sort and credit chosen by the alderman, his deputy, and common council of every ward, by the name of examiners, to continue in that office for the space of two months at least: and if any fit person so appointed shall refuse to undertake the same, the said parties so refusing to be committed to prison until they shall conform themselves accordingly.

The Examiner’s Office.

That these examiners be sworn by the aldermen to inquire and learn from time to time what houses in every parish be visited, and what persons be sick, and of what diseases, as near as they can inform themselves, and, upon doubt in that case, to command restraint of access until it appear what the disease shall prove; and if they find any person sick of the infection, to give order to the constable that the house be shut up; and, if the constable shall be found remiss and negligent, to give notice thereof to the alderman of the ward.


That to every infected house there be appointed two watchmen,—one for every day, and the other for the night; and that these watchmen have a special care that no person go in or out of such infected houses whereof they have the charge, upon pain of severe punishment. And the said watchmen to do such further offices as the sick house shall need and require; and if the watchman be sent upon any business, to lock up the house and take the key with him; and the watchman by day to attend until ten o’clock at night, and the watchman by night until six in the morning.


That there be a special care to appoint women searchers in every parish, such as are of honest reputation and of the best sort as can be got in this kind; and these to be sworn to make due search and true report, to the utmost of their knowledge, whether the persons whose bodies they are appointed to search do die of the infection, or of what other diseases, as near as they can. And that the physicians who shall be appointed for the cure and prevention of the infection do call before them the said searchers, who are or shall be appointed for the several parishes under their respective cares, to the end they may consider whether they be fitly qualified for that employment, and charge them from time to time, as they shall see cause, if they appear defective in their duties.

That no searcher during this time of visitation be permitted to use any public work or employment, or keep a shop or stall, or be employed as a laundress, or in any other common employment whatsoever.


For better assistance of the searchers, forasmuch as there has been heretofore great abuse in misreporting the disease, to the further spreading of the infection, it is therefore ordered that there be chosen and appointed able and discreet chirurgeons besides those that do already belong to the pesthouse, amongst whom the city and liberties to be quartered as they lie most apt and convenient; and every of these to have one quarter for his limit. And the said chirurgeons in every of their limits to join with the searchers for the view of the body, to the end there may be a true report made of the disease.

And further: that the said chirurgeons shall visit and search such like persons as shall either send for them, or be named and directed unto them by the examiners of every parish, and inform themselves of the disease of the said parties.

And forasmuch as the said chirurgeons are to be sequestered from all other cures, and kept only to this disease of the infection, it is ordered that every of the said chirurgeons shall have twelvepence a body searched by them, to be paid out of the goods of the party searched, if he be able, or otherwise by the parish.

Nurse Keepers.

If any nurse keeper shall remove herself out of any infected house before twenty-eight days after the decease of any person dying of the infection, the house to which the said nurse keeper doth so remove herself shall be shut up until the said twenty-eight days shall be expired.



Notice to be given of the Sickness.

The master of every house, as soon as any one in his house complaineth either of botch, or purple, or swelling in any part of his body, or falleth otherwise dangerously sick without apparent cause of some other disease, shall give notice thereof to the examiner of health, within two hours after the said sign shall appear.

Sequestration of the Sick.

As soon as any man shall be found by this examiner, chirurgeon, or searcher, to be sick of the plague, he shall the same night be sequestered in the same house; and in case he be so sequestered, then, though he die not, the house wherein he sickened shall be shut up for a month after the use of the due preservatives taken by the rest.

Airing the Stuff.

For sequestration of the goods and stuff of the infection, their bedding and apparel, and hangings of chambers, must be well aired with fire, and such perfumes as are requisite, within the infected house, before they be taken again to use. This to be done by the appointment of the examiner.

Shutting up of the House.

If any person shall visit any man known to be infected of the plague, or entereth willingly into any known infected house, being not allowed, the house wherein he inhabiteth shall be shut up for certain days by the examiner’s direction.

None to be removed out of Infected Houses, but, etc.

Item, That none be removed out of the house where he falleth sick of the infection into any other house in the city (except it be to the pesthouse or a tent, or unto some such house which the owner of the said house holdeth in his own hands, and occupieth by his own servants), and so as security be given to the said parish whither such remove is made, that the attendance and charge about the said visited persons shall be observed and charged in all the particularities before expressed, without any cost of that parish to which any such remove shall happen to be made, and this remove to be done by night. And it shall be lawful to any person that hath two houses to remove either his sound or his infected people to his spare house at his choice, so as, if he send away first his sound, he do not after send thither the sick; nor again unto the sick, the sound; and that the same which he sendeth be for one week at the least shut up, and secluded from company, for the fear of some infection at first not appearing.

Burial of the Dead.

That the burial of the dead by this visitation be at most convenient hours, always before sunrising, or after sunsetting, with the privity of the churchwardens, or constable, and not otherwise; and that no neighbors nor friends be suffered to accompany the corpse to church, or to enter the house visited, upon pain of having his house shut up, or be imprisoned.

And that no corpse dying of the infection shall be buried, or remain in any church, in time of common prayer, sermon, or lecture. And that no children be suffered, at time of burial of any corpse, in any church, churchyard, or burying place, to come near the corpse, coffin, or grave; and that all graves shall be at least six feet deep.

And further, all public assemblies at other burials are to be forborne during the continuance of this visitation.

No Infected Stuff to be uttered.

That no clothes, stuff, bedding, or garments, be suffered to be carried or conveyed out of any infected houses, and that the criers and carriers abroad of bedding or old apparel to be sold or pawned be utterly prohibited and restrained, and no brokers of bedding or old apparel be permitted to make any public show, or hang forth on their stalls, shop boards, or windows towards any street, lane, common way, or passage, any old bedding or apparel to be sold, upon pain of imprisonment. And if any broker or other person shall buy any bedding, apparel, or other stuff out of any infected house, within two months after the infection hath been there, his house shall be shut up as infected, and so shall continue shut up twenty days at the least.

No Person to be conveyed out of any Infected House.

If any person visited do fortune, by negligent looking unto, or by any other means, to come or be conveyed from a place infected to any other place, the parish from whence such party hath come, or been conveyed, upon notice thereof given, shall, at their charge, cause the said party so visited and escaped to be carried and brought back again by night; and the parties in this case offending to be punished at the direction of the alderman of the ward, and the house of the receiver of such visited person to be shut up for twenty days.

Every Visited House to be marked.

That every house visited be marked with a red cross of a foot long, in the middle of the door, evident to be seen, and with these usual printed words, that is to say, “Lord have mercy upon us,” to be set close over the same cross, there to continue until lawful opening of the same house.

Every Visited House to be watched.

That the constables see every house shut up, and to be attended with watchmen, which may keep in, and minister necessaries to them at their own charges, if they be able, or at the common charge if they be unable. The shutting up to be for the space of four weeks after all be whole.

That precise order be taken that the searchers, chirurgeons, keepers, and buriers, are not to pass the streets without holding a red rod or wand of three foot in length in their hands, open and evident to be seen; and are not to go into any other house than into their own, or into that whereunto they are directed or sent for, but to forbear and abstain from company, especially when they have been lately used in any such business or attendance.


That where several inmates are in one and the same house, and any person in that house happens to be infected, no other person or family of such house shall be suffered to remove him or themselves without a certificate from the examiners of the health of that parish; or, in default thereof, the house whither she or they remove shall be shut up as is in case of visitation.

Hackney Coaches.

That care be taken of hackney coachmen, that they may not, as some of them have been observed to do after carrying of infected persons to the pesthouse and other places, be admitted to common use till their coaches be well aired, and have stood unemployed by the space of five or six days after such service.



The Streets to be kept Clean.

First, it is thought necessary, and so ordered, that every householder do cause the street to be daily prepared before his door, and so to keep it clean swept all the week long.

That Rakers take it from out the Houses.

That the sweeping and filth of houses be daily carried away by the rakers, and that the raker shall give notice of his coming by the blowing of a horn, as hitherto hath been done.

Laystalls to be made far off from the City.

That the laystalls be removed as far as may be out of the city and common passages, and that no nightman or other be suffered to empty a vault into any vault or garden near about the city.

Care to be had of Unwholesome Fish or Flesh, and of Musty Corn.

That special care be taken that no stinking fish, or unwholesome flesh, or musty corn, or other corrupt fruits, of what sort soever, be suffered to be sold about the city or any part of the same.

That the brewers and tippling-houses be looked unto for musty and unwholesome casks.

That no hogs, dogs, or cats, or tame pigeons, or conies, be suffered to be kept within any part of the city, or any swine to be or stray in the streets or lanes, but that such swine be impounded by the beadle or any other officer, and the owner punished according to the act of common council; and that the dogs be killed by the dog killers appointed for that purpose.




Forasmuch as nothing is more complained of than the multitude of rogues and wandering beggars that swarm about in every place about the city, being a great cause of the spreading of the infection, and will not be avoided notwithstanding any orders that have been given to the contrary: it is therefore now ordered that such constables, and others whom this matter may any way concern, take special care that no wandering beggars be suffered in the streets of this city, in any fashion or manner whatsoever, upon the penalty provided by law to be duly and severely executed upon them.


That all plays, bear baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler play, or such like causes of assemblies of people, be utterly prohibited, and the parties offending severely punished by every alderman in his ward.

Feasting prohibited.

That all public feasting, and particularly by the companies of this city, and dinners in taverns, alehouses, and other places of public entertainment, be forborne till further order and allowance, and that the money thereby spared be preserved, and employed for the benefit and relief of the poor visited with the infection.


That disorderly tippling in taverns, alehouses, coffeehouses, and cellars, be severely looked unto as the common sin of the time, and greatest occasion of dispersing the plague. And that no company or person be suffered to remain or come into any tavern, alehouse, or coffeehouse, to drink, after nine of the clock in the evening, according to the ancient law and custom of this city, upon the penalties ordained by law.

And for the better execution of these orders, and such other rules and directions as upon further consideration shall be found needful, it is ordered and enjoined that the aldermen, deputies, and common councilmen shall meet together weekly, once, twice, thrice, or oftener, as cause shall require, at some one general place accustomed in their respective wards, being clear from infection of the plague, to consult how the said orders may be put in execution, not intending that any dwelling in or near places infected shall come to the said meeting while their coming may be doubtful. And the said aldermen, deputies, and common councilmen, in their several wards, may put in execution any other orders that by them, at their said meetings, shall be conceived and devised for the preservation of his Majesty’s subjects from the infection.

Sir CHARLES DOE,               } Sheriffs.

I need not say that these orders extended only to such places as were within the lord mayor’s jurisdiction: so it is requisite to observe that the justices of peace within those parishes and places as were called the “hamlets” and “outparts” took the same method. As I remember, the orders for shutting up of houses did not take place so soon on our side, because, as I said before, the plague did not reach to this eastern part of the town at least, nor begin to be violent till the beginning of August. For example, the whole bill from the 11th to the 18th of July was 1,761, yet there died but 71 of the plague in all those parishes we call the Tower Hamlets; and they were as follows:—

Stepney,33| The next58| and to the    76
Whitechapel,21| week was    48| Aug. 179
St. Kath. Tower.    2| thus:4| thus:4
Trin. Minories,1|1|4
 —— —— ——
 71 145 228

It was indeed coming on amain, for the burials that same week were, in the next adjoining parishes, thus:—

St. L. Shoreditch64| The next week    84| To110
St. Bot. Bishopsg.65| prodigiously105| Aug. 1    116
St. Giles’s Crippl.213| increased, as 431| thus:554
 —— —— ——
 342  620 780

History of the Plague in England - Contents    |     § 4

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