History of the Plague in England

§ 6

Daniel Defoe

AT THE BEGINNING of the plague, when there was now no more hope but that the whole city would be visited; when, as I have said, all that had friends or estates in the country retired with their families; and when, indeed, one would have thought the very city itself was running out of the gates, and that there would be nobody left behind,—you may be sure from that hour all trade, except such as related to immediate subsistence, was, as it were, at a full stop.

This is so lively a case, and contains in it so much of the real condition of the people, that I think I cannot be too particular in it, and therefore I descend to the several arrangements or classes of people who fell into immediate distress upon this occasion. For example:—

1. All master workmen in manufactures, especially such as belonged to ornament and the less necessary parts of the people’s dress, clothes, and furniture for houses; such as ribbon-weavers and other weavers, gold and silver lacemakers, and gold and silver wire-drawers, seamstresses, milliners, shoemakers, hatmakers, and glovemakers, also upholsterers, joiners, cabinet-makers, looking-glass-makers, and innumerable trades which depend upon such as these,—I say, the master workmen in such stopped their work, dismissed their journeymen and workmen and all their dependents.

2. As merchandising was at a full stop (for very few ships ventured to come up the river, and none at all went out), so all the extraordinary officers of the customs, likewise the watermen, carmen, porters, and all the poor whose labor depended upon the merchants, were at once dismissed, and put out of business.

3. All the tradesmen usually employed in building or repairing of houses were at a full stop; for the people were far from wanting to build houses when so many thousand houses were at once stripped of their inhabitants; so that this one article turned out all the ordinary workmen of that kind of business, such as bricklayers, masons, carpenters, joiners, plasterers, painters, glaziers, smiths, plumbers, and all the laborers depending on such.

4. As navigation was at a stop, our ships neither coming in or going out as before, so the seamen were all out of employment, and many of them in the last and lowest degree of distress. And with the seamen were all the several tradesmen and workmen belonging to and depending upon the building and fitting out of ships; such as ship-carpenters, calkers, ropemakers, dry coopers, sailmakers, anchor-smiths, and other smiths, blockmakers, carvers, gunsmiths, ship-chandlers, ship-carvers, and the like. The masters of those, perhaps, might live upon their substance; but the traders were universally at a stop, and consequently all their workmen discharged. Add to these, that the river was in a manner without boats, and all or most part of the watermen, lighter-men, boat-builders, and lighter-builders, in like manner idle and laid by.

5. All families retrenched their living as much as possible, as well those that fled as those that staid; so that an innumerable multitude of footmen, serving men, shopkeepers, journeymen, merchants’ bookkeepers, and such sort of people, and especially poor maidservants, were turned off, and left friendless and helpless, without employment and without habitation; and this was really a dismal article.

I might be more particular as to this part; but it may suffice to mention, in general, all trades being stopped, employment ceased, the labor, and by that the bread of the poor, were cut off; and at first, indeed, the cries of the poor were most lamentable to hear, though, by the distribution of charity, their misery that way was gently abated. Many, indeed, fled into the country; but, thousands of them having staid in London till nothing but desperation sent them away, death overtook them on the road, and they served for no better than the messengers of death: indeed, others carrying the infection along with them, spread it very unhappily into the remotest parts of the kingdom.

The women and servants that were turned off from their places were employed as nurses to tend the sick in all places, and this took off a very great number of them.

And which, though a melancholy article in itself, yet was a deliverance in its kind, namely, the plague, which raged in a dreadful manner from the middle of August to the middle of October, carried off in that time thirty or forty thousand of these very people, which, had they been left, would certainly have been an insufferable burden by their poverty; that is to say, the whole city could not have supported the expense of them, or have provided food for them, and they would in time have been even driven to the necessity of plundering either the city itself, or the country adjacent, to have subsisted themselves, which would, first or last, have put the whole nation, as well as the city, into the utmost terror and confusion.

It was observable, then, that this calamity of the people made them very humble; for now, for about nine weeks together, there died near a thousand a day, one day with another, even by the account of the weekly bills, which yet, I have reason to be assured, never gave a full account by many thousands; the confusion being such, and the carts working in the dark when they carried the dead, that in some places no account at all was kept, but they worked on; the clerks and sextons not attending for weeks together, and not knowing what number they carried. This account is verified by the following bills of mortality:—

  Of All Diseases. Of the Plague.
Aug. 8 to Aug. 15
Aug. 15 to Aug. 22
Aug. 22 to Aug. 29
Aug. 29 to Sept. 5
Sept. 5 to Sept. 12
Sept. 12 to Sept. 19    
Sept. 19 to Sept. 30    
Sept. 27 to Oct. 3
Oct. 3 to Oct. 10

So that the gross of the people were carried off in these two months; for, as the whole number which was brought in to die of the plague was but 68,590, here is 50,000 of them, within a trifle, in two months: I say 50,000, because as there wants 395 in the number above, so there wants two days of two months in the account of time.

Now, when I say that the parish officers did not give in a full account, or were not to be depended upon for their account, let any one but consider how men could be exact in such a time of dreadful distress, and when many of them were taken sick themselves, and perhaps died in the very time when their accounts were to be given in (I mean the parish clerks, besides inferior officers): for though these poor men ventured at all hazards, yet they were far from being exempt from the common calamity, especially if it be true that the parish of Stepney had within the year one hundred and sixteen sextons, gravediggers, and their assistants; that is to say, bearers, bellmen, and drivers of carts for carrying off the dead bodies.

Indeed, the work was not of such a nature as to allow them leisure to take an exact tale of the dead bodies, which were all huddled together in the dark into a pit; which pit, or trench, no man could come nigh but at the utmost peril. I have observed often that in the parishes of Aldgate, Cripplegate, Whitechapel, and Stepney, there were five, six, seven, and eight hundred in a week in the bills; whereas, if we may believe the opinion of those that lived in the city all the time, as well as I, there died sometimes two thousand a week in those parishes. And I saw it under the hand of one that made as strict an examination as he could, that there really died a hundred thousand people of the plague in it that one year; whereas, in the bills, the article of the plague was but 68,590.

If I may be allowed to give my opinion, by what I saw with my eyes, and heard from other people that were eyewitnesses, I do verily believe the same; viz., that there died at least a hundred thousand of the plague only, besides other distempers, and besides those which died in the fields and highways and secret places, out of the compass of the communication, as it was called, and who were not put down in the bills, though they really belonged to the body of the inhabitants. It was known to us all that abundance of poor despairing creatures who had the distemper upon them, and were grown stupid or melancholy by their misery (as many were), wandered away into the fields and woods, and into secret uncouth places, almost anywhere, to creep into a bush or hedge, and die.

The inhabitants of the villages adjacent would in pity carry them food, and set it at a distance, that they might fetch it if they were able; and sometimes they were not able. And the next time they went they would find the poor wretches lie dead, and the food untouched. The number of these miserable objects were many; and I know so many that perished thus, and so exactly where, that I believe I could go to the very place, and dig their bones up still; for the country people would go and dig a hole at a distance from them, and then, with long poles and hooks at the end of them, drag the bodies into these pits, and then throw the earth in form, as far as they could cast it, to cover them, taking notice how the wind blew, and so come on that side which the seamen call “to windward,” that the scent of the bodies might blow from them. And thus great numbers went out of the world who were never known, or any account of them taken, as well within the bills of mortality as without.

This indeed I had, in the main, only from the relation of others; for I seldom walked into the fields, except towards Bethnal Green and Hackney, or as hereafter. But when I did walk, I always saw a great many poor wanderers at a distance, but I could know little of their cases; for, whether it were in the street or in the fields, if we had seen anybody coming, it was a general method to walk away. Yet I believe the account is exactly true.

As this puts me upon mentioning my walking the streets and fields, I cannot omit taking notice what a desolate place the city was at that time. The great street I lived in, which is known to be one of the broadest of all the streets of London (I mean of the suburbs as well as the liberties, all the side where the butchers lived, especially without the bars), was more like a green field than a paved street; and the people generally went in the middle with the horses and carts. It is true that the farthest end, towards Whitechapel Church, was not all paved, but even the part that was paved was full of grass also. But this need not seem strange, since the great streets within the city, such as Leadenhall Street, Bishopsgate Street, Cornhill, and even the Exchange itself, had grass growing in them in several places. Neither cart nor coach was seen in the streets from morning to evening, except some country carts to bring roots and beans, or pease, hay, and straw, to the market, and those but very few compared to what was usual. As for coaches, they were scarce used, but to carry sick people to the pesthouse and to other hospitals, and some few to carry physicians to such places as they thought fit to venture to visit; for really coaches were dangerous things, and people did not care to venture into them, because they did not know who might have been carried in them last; and sick infected people were, as I have said, ordinarily carried in them to the pesthouses; and sometimes people expired in them as they went along.

It is true, when the infection came to such a height as I have now mentioned, there were very few physicians who cared to stir abroad to sick houses, and very many of the most eminent of the faculty were dead, as well as the surgeons also; for now it was indeed a dismal time, and for about a month together, not taking any notice of the bills of mortality, I believe there did not die less than fifteen or seventeen hundred a day, one day with another.

One of the worst days we had in the whole time, as I thought, was in the beginning of September, when, indeed, good people were beginning to think that God was resolved to make a full end of the people in this miserable city. This was at that time when the plague was fully come into the eastern parishes. The parish of Aldgate, if I may give my opinion, buried above one thousand a week for two weeks, though the bills did not say so many; but it surrounded me at so dismal a rate, that there was not a house in twenty uninfected. In the Minories, in Houndsditch, and in those parts of Aldgate Parish about the Butcher Row, and the alleys over against me,—I say, in those places death reigned in every corner. Whitechapel Parish was in the same condition, and though much less than the parish I lived in, yet buried near six hundred a week, by the bills, and in my opinion near twice as many. Whole families, and indeed whole streets of families, were swept away together, insomuch that it was frequent for neighbors to call to the bellman to go to such and such houses and fetch out the people, for that they were all dead.

And indeed the work of removing the dead bodies by carts was now grown so very odious and dangerous, that it was complained of that the bearers did not take care to clear such houses where all the inhabitants were dead, but that some of the bodies lay unburied till the neighboring families were offended by the stench, and consequently infected. And this neglect of the officers was such, that the churchwardens and constables were summoned to look after it; and even the justices of the hamlets were obliged to venture their lives among them to quicken and encourage them; for innumerable of the bearers died of the distemper, infected by the bodies they were obliged to come so near. And had it not been that the number of people who wanted employment, and wanted bread, as I have said before, was so great that necessity drove them to undertake anything, and venture anything, they would never have found people to be employed; and then the bodies of the dead would have lain above ground, and have perished and rotted in a dreadful manner.

But the magistrates cannot be enough commended in this, that they kept such good order for the burying of the dead, that as fast as any of those they employed to carry off and bury the dead fell sick or died (as was many times the case), they immediately supplied the places with others; which, by reason of the great number of poor that was left out of business, as above, was not hard to do. This occasioned, that, notwithstanding the infinite number of people which died and were sick, almost all together, yet they were always cleared away, and carried off every night; so that it was never to be said of London that the living were not able to bury the dead.

As the desolation was greater during those terrible times, so the amazement of the people increased; and a thousand unaccountable things they would do in the violence of their fright, as others did the same in the agonies of their distemper: and this part was very affecting. Some went roaring, and crying, and wringing their hands, along the street; some would go praying, and lifting up their hands to heaven, calling upon God for mercy. I cannot say, indeed, whether this was not in their distraction; but, be it so, it was still an indication of a more serious mind when they had the use of their senses, and was much better, even as it was, than the frightful yellings and cryings that every day, and especially in the evenings, were heard in some streets. I suppose the world has heard of the famous Solomon Eagle, an enthusiast. He, though not infected at all, but in his head, went about denouncing of judgment upon the city in a frightful manner; sometimes quite naked, and with a pan of burning charcoal on his head. What he said or pretended, indeed, I could not learn.

I will not say whether that clergyman was distracted or not, or whether he did it out of pure zeal for the poor people, who went every evening through the streets of Whitechapel, and, with his hands lifted up, repeated that part of the liturgy of the church continually, “Spare us, good Lord; spare thy people whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood.” I say I cannot speak positively of these things, because these were only the dismal objects which represented themselves to me as I looked through my chamber windows; for I seldom opened the casements while I confined myself within doors during that most violent raging of the pestilence, when indeed many began to think, and even to say, that there would none escape. And indeed I began to think so too, and therefore kept within doors for about a fortnight, and never stirred out. But I could not hold it. Besides, there were some people, who, notwithstanding the danger, did not omit publicly to attend the worship of God, even in the most dangerous times. And though it is true that a great many of the clergy did shut up their churches and fled, as other people did, for the safety of their lives, yet all did not do so. Some ventured to officiate, and to keep up the assemblies of the people by constant prayers, and sometimes sermons, or brief exhortations to repentance and reformation; and this as long as they would hear them. And dissenters did the like also, and even in the very churches where the parish ministers were either dead or fled; nor was there any room for making any difference at such a time as this was.

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