History of the Plague in England

§ 9

Daniel Defoe

I COME BACK to my three men. Their story has a moral in every part of it; and their whole conduct, and that of some whom they joined with, is a pattern for all poor men to follow, or women either, if ever such a time comes again: and if there was no other end in recording it, I think this a very just one, whether my account be exactly according to fact or no.

Two of them were said to be brothers, the one an old soldier, but now a biscuit baker; the other a lame sailor, but now a sailmaker; the third a joiner. Says John the biscuit baker, one day, to Thomas, his brother, the sailmaker, “Brother Tom, what will become of us? The plague grows hot in the city, and increases this way. What shall we do?”

“Truly,” says Thomas, “I am at a great loss what to do; for I find if it comes down into Wapping I shall be turned out of my lodging.” And thus they began to talk of it beforehand.

John. Turned out of your lodging, Tom? If you are, I don’t know who will take you in; for people are so afraid of one another now, there is no getting a lodging anywhere.

Tho. Why, the people where I lodge are good civil people, and have kindness for me too; but they say I go abroad every day to my work, and it will be dangerous; and they talk of locking themselves up, and letting nobody come near them.

John. Why, they are in the right, to be sure, if they resolve to venture staying in town.

Tho. Nay, I might even resolve to stay within doors too; for, except a suit of sails that my master has in hand, and which I am just finishing, I am like to get no more work a great while. There’s no trade stirs now, workmen and servants are turned off everywhere; so that I might be glad to be locked up too. But I do not see that they will be willing to consent to that any more than to the other.

John. Why, what will you do then, brother? And what shall I do? for I am almost as bad as you. The people where I lodge are all gone into the country but a maid, and she is to go next week, and to shut the house quite up; so that I shall be turned adrift to the wide world before you: and I am resolved to go away too, if I knew but where to go.

Tho. We were both distracted we did not go away at first, when we might ha’ traveled anywhere: there is no stirring now. We shall be starved if we pretend to go out of town. They won’t let us have victuals, no, not for our money, nor let us come into the towns, much less into their houses.

John. And, that which is almost as bad, I have but little money to help myself with, neither.

Tho. As to that, we might make shift. I have a little, though not much; but I tell you there is no stirring on the road. I know a couple of poor honest men in our street have attempted to travel; and at Barnet, or Whetstone, or thereabout, the people offered to fire at them if they pretended to go forward: so they are come back again quite discouraged.

John. I would have ventured their fire, if I had been there. If I had been denied food for my money, they should have seen me take it before their faces; and, if I had tendered money for it, they could not have taken any course with me by the law.

Tho. You talk your old soldier’s language, as if you were in the Low Countries now; but this is a serious thing. The people have good reason to keep anybody off that they are not satisfied are sound at such a time as this, and we must not plunder them.

John. No, brother, you mistake the case, and mistake me too: I would plunder nobody. But for any town upon the road to deny me leave to pass through the town in the open highway, and deny me provisions for my money, is to say the town has a right to starve me to death; which cannot be true.

Tho. But they do not deny you liberty to go back again from whence you came, and therefore they do not starve you.

John. But the next town behind me will, by the same rule, deny me leave to go back; and so they do starve me between them. Besides, there is no law to prohibit my traveling wherever I will on the road.

Tho. But there will be so much difficulty in disputing with them at every town on the road, that it is not for poor men to do it, or undertake it, at such a time as this is especially.

John. Why, brother, our condition, at this rate, is worse than anybody’s else; for we can neither go away nor stay here. I am of the same mind with the lepers of Samaria. If we stay here, we are sure to die. I mean especially as you and I are situated, without a dwelling house of our own, and without lodging in anybody’s else. There is no lying in the street at such a time as this; we had as good go into the dead cart at once. Therefore, I say, if we stay here, we are sure to die; and if we go away, we can but die. I am resolved to be gone.

Tho. You will go away. Whither will you go, and what can you do? I would as willingly go away as you, if I knew whither; but we have no acquaintance, no friends. Here we were born, and here we must die.

John. Look you, Tom, the whole kingdom is my native country as well as this town. You may as well say I must not go out of my house if it is on fire, as that I must not go out of the town I was born in when it is infected with the plague. I was born in England, and have a right to live in it if I can.

Tho. But you know every vagrant person may, by the laws of England, be taken up, and passed back to their last legal settlement.

John. But how shall they make me vagrant? I desire only to travel on upon my lawful occasions.

Tho. What lawful occasions can we pretend to travel, or rather wander, upon? They will not be put off with words.

John. Is not flying to save our lives a lawful occasion? And do they not all know that the fact is true? We cannot be said to dissemble.

Tho. But, suppose they let us pass, whither shall we go?

John. Anywhere to save our lives: it is time enough to consider that when we are got out of this town. If I am once out of this dreadful place, I care not where I go.

Tho. We shall be driven to great extremities. I know not what to think of it.

John. Well, Tom, consider of it a little.

This was about the beginning of July; and though the plague was come forward in the west and north parts of the town, yet all Wapping, as I have observed before, and Redriff and Ratcliff, and Limehouse and Poplar, in short, Deptford and Greenwich, both sides of the river from the Hermitage, and from over against it, quite down to Blackwall, was entirely free. There had not one person died of the plague in all Stepney Parish, and not one on the south side of Whitechapel Road, no, not in any parish; and yet the weekly bill was that very week risen up to 1,006.

It was a fortnight after this before the two brothers met again, and then the case was a little altered, and the plague was exceedingly advanced, and the number greatly increased. The bill was up at 2,785, and prodigiously increasing; though still both sides of the river, as below, kept pretty well. But some began to die in Redriff, and about five or six in Ratcliff Highway, when the sailmaker came to his brother John, express, and in some fright; for he was absolutely warned out of his lodging, and had only a week to provide himself. His brother John was in as bad a case, for he was quite out, and had only begged leave of his master, the biscuit baker, to lodge in an outhouse belonging to his workhouse, where he only lay upon straw, with some biscuit sacks, or “bread sacks,” as they called them, laid upon it, and some of the same sacks to cover him.

Here they resolved, seeing all employment being at an end, and no work or wages to be had, they would make the best of their way to get out of the reach of the dreadful infection, and, being as good husbands as they could, would endeavor to live upon what they had as long as it would last, and then work for more, if they could get work anywhere of any kind, let it be what it would.

While they were considering to put this resolution in practice in the best manner they could, the third man, who was acquainted very well with the sailmaker, came to know of the design, and got leave to be one of the number; and thus they prepared to set out.

It happened that they had not an equal share of money; but as the sailmaker, who had the best stock, was, besides his being lame, the most unfit to expect to get anything by working in the country, so he was content that what money they had should all go into one public stock, on condition that whatever any one of them could gain more than another, it should, without any grudging, be all added to the public stock.

They resolved to load themselves with as little baggage as possible, because they resolved at first to travel on foot, and to go a great way, that they might, if possible, be effectually safe. And a great many consultations they had with themselves before they could agree about what way they should travel; which they were so far from adjusting, that, even to the morning they set out, they were not resolved on it.

At last the seaman put in a hint that determined it. “First,” says he, “the weather is very hot; and therefore I am for traveling north, that we may not have the sun upon our faces, and beating upon our breasts, which will heat and suffocate us; and I have been told,” says he, “that it is not good to overheat our blood at a time when, for aught we know, the infection may be in the very air. In the next place,” says he, “I am for going the way that may be contrary to the wind as it may blow when we set out, that we may not have the wind blow the air of the city on our backs as we go.” These two cautions were approved of, if it could be brought so to hit that the wind might not be in the south when they set out to go north.

John the baker, who had been a soldier, then put in his opinion. “First,” says he, “we none of us expect to get any lodging on the road, and it will be a little too hard to lie just in the open air. Though it may be warm weather, yet it may be wet and damp, and we have a double reason to take care of our healths at such a time as this; and therefore,” says he, “you, brother Tom, that are a sailmaker, might easily make us a little tent; and I will undertake to set it up every night and take it down, and a fig for all the inns in England. If we have a good tent over our heads, we shall do well enough.”

The joiner opposed this, and told them, let them leave that to him: he would undertake to build them a house every night with his hatchet and mallet, though he had no other tools, which should be fully to their satisfaction, and as good as a tent.

The soldier and the joiner disputed that point some time; but at last the soldier carried it for a tent: the only objection against it was, that it must be carried with them, and that would increase their baggage too much, the weather being hot. But the sailmaker had a piece of good hap fall in, which made that easy; for his master who he worked for, having a ropewalk, as well as sailmaking trade, had a little poor horse that he made no use of then, and, being willing to assist the three honest men, he gave them the horse for the carrying their baggage; also, for a small matter of three days’ work that his man did for him before he went, he let him have an old topgallant sail that was worn out, but was sufficient, and more than enough, to make a very good tent. The soldier showed how to shape it, and they soon, by his direction, made their tent, and fitted it with poles or staves for the purpose: and thus they were furnished for their journey; viz., three men, one tent, one horse, one gun for the soldier (who would not go without arms, for now he said he was no more a biscuit baker, but a trooper). The joiner had a small bag of tools, such as might be useful if he should get any work abroad, as well for their subsistence as his own. What money they had they brought all into one public stock, and thus they began their journey. It seems that in the morning when they set out, the wind blew, as the sailor said, by his pocket compass, at N.W. by W., so they directed, or rather resolved to direct, their course N.W.

But then a difficulty came in their way, that as they set out from the hither end of Wapping, near the Hermitage, and that the plague was now very violent, especially on the north side of the city, as in Shoreditch and Cripplegate Parish, they did not think it safe for them to go near those parts: so they went away east, through Ratcliff Highway, as far as Ratcliff Cross, and leaving Stepney church still on their left hand, being afraid to come up from Ratcliff Cross to Mile End, because they must come just by the churchyard, and because the wind, that seemed to blow more from the west, blowed directly from the side of the city where the plague was hottest. So, I say, leaving Stepney, they fetched a long compass, and, going to Poplar and Bromley, came into the great road just at Bow.

Here the watch placed upon Bow Bridge would have questioned them; but they, crossing the road into a narrow way that turns out of the higher end of the town of Bow to Oldford, avoided any inquiry there, and traveled on to Oldford. The constables everywhere were upon their guard, not so much, it seems, to stop people passing by, as to stop them from taking up their abode in their towns; and, withal, because of a report that was newly raised at that time, and that indeed was not very improbable, viz., that the poor people in London, being distressed and starved for want of work, and by that means for want of bread, were up in arms, and had raised a tumult, and that they would come out to all the towns round to plunder for bread. This, I say, was only a rumor, and it was very well it was no more; but it was not so far off from being a reality as it has been thought, for in a few weeks more the poor people became so desperate by the calamity they suffered, that they were with great difficulty kept from running out into the fields and towns, and tearing all in pieces wherever they came. And, as I have observed before, nothing hindered them but that the plague raged so violently, and fell in upon them so furiously, that they rather went to the grave by thousands than into the fields in mobs by thousands; for in the parts about the parishes of St. Sepulchre’s, Clerkenwell, Cripplegate, Bishopsgate, and Shoreditch, which were the places where the mob began to threaten, the distemper came on so furiously, that there died in those few parishes, even then, before the plague was come to its height, no less than 5,361 people in the first three weeks in August, when at the same time the parts about Wapping, Ratcliff, and Rotherhithe were, as before described, hardly touched, or but very lightly; so that in a word, though, as I said before, the good management of the lord mayor and justices did much to prevent the rage and desperation of the people from breaking out in rabbles and tumults, and, in short, from the poor plundering the rich,—I say, though they did much, the dead cart did more: for as I have said, that, in five parishes only, there died above five thousand in twenty days, so there might be probably three times that number sick all that time; for some recovered, and great numbers fell sick every day, and died afterwards. Besides, I must still be allowed to say, that, if the bills of mortality said five thousand, I always believed it was twice as many in reality, there being no room to believe that the account they gave was right, or that indeed they were, among such confusions as I saw them in, in any condition to keep an exact account.

But to return to my travelers. Here they were only examined, and, as they seemed rather coming from the country than from the city, they found the people easier with them; that they talked to them, let them come into a public house where the constable and his warders were, and gave them drink and some victuals, which greatly refreshed and encouraged them. And here it came into their heads to say, when they should be inquired of afterwards, not that they came from London, but that they came out of Essex.

To forward this little fraud, they obtained so much favor of the constable at Oldford as to give them a certificate of their passing from Essex through that village, and that they had not been at London; which, though false in the common acceptation of London in the country, yet was literally true, Wapping or Ratcliff being no part either of the city or liberty.

This certificate, directed to the next constable, that was at Homerton, one of the hamlets of the parish of Hackney, was so serviceable to them, that it procured them, not a free passage there only, but a full certificate of health from a justice of the peace, who, upon the constable’s application, granted it without much difficulty. And thus they passed through the long divided town of Hackney (for it lay then in several separated hamlets), and traveled on till they came into the great north road, on the top of Stamford Hill.

By this time they began to weary; and so, in the back road from Hackney, a little before it opened into the said great road, they resolved to set up their tent, and encamp for the first night; which they did accordingly, with this addition: that, finding a barn, or a building like a barn, and first searching as well as they could to be sure there was nobody in it, they set up their tent with the head of it against the barn. This they did also because the wind blew that night very high, and they were but young at such a way of lodging, as well as at the managing their tent.

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