History of the Plague in England

§ 11

Daniel Defoe

THIS WAS John the soldier’s management; but this gave such an alarm to the county, that, had they really been two or three hundred, the whole county would have been raised upon them, and they would have been sent to prison, or perhaps knocked on the head.

They were soon made sensible of this, for two days afterwards they found several parties of horsemen and footmen also about, in pursuit of three companies of men armed, as they said, with muskets, who were broke out from London and had the plague upon them, and that were not only spreading the distemper among the people, but plundering the country.

As they saw now the consequence of their case, they soon saw the danger they were in: so they resolved, by the advice also of the old soldier, to divide themselves again. John and his two comrades, with the horse, went away as if towards Waltham,—the other in two companies, but all a little asunder,—and went towards Epping.

The first night they encamped all in the forest, and not far off from one another, but not setting up the tent for fear that should discover them. On the other hand, Richard went to work with his ax and his hatchet, and, cutting down branches of trees, he built three tents or hovels, in which they all encamped with as much convenience as they could expect.

The provisions they had at Walthamstow served them very plentifully this night; and as for the next, they left it to Providence. They had fared so well with the old soldier’s conduct, that they now willingly made him their leader, and the first of his conduct appeared to be very good. He told them that they were now at a proper distance enough from London; that, as they need not be immediately beholden to the country for relief, they ought to be as careful the country did not infect them as that they did not infect the country; that what little money they had they must be as frugal of as they could; that as he would not have them think of offering the country any violence, so they must endeavor to make the sense of their condition go as far with the country as it could. They all referred themselves to his direction: so they left their three houses standing, and the next day went away towards Epping; the captain also (for so they now called him), and his two fellow travelers, laid aside their design of going to Waltham, and all went together.

When they came near Epping, they halted, choosing out a proper place in the open forest, not very near the highway, but not far out of it, on the north side, under a little cluster of low pollard trees. Here they pitched their little camp, which consisted of three large tents or huts made of poles, which their carpenter, and such as were his assistants, cut down, and fixed in the ground in a circle, binding all the small ends together at the top, and thickening the sides with boughs of trees and bushes, so that they were completely close and warm. They had besides this a little tent where the women lay by themselves, and a hut to put the horse in.

It happened that the next day, or the next but one, was market day at Epping, when Captain John and one of the other men went to market and bought some provisions, that is to say, bread, and some mutton and beef; and two of the women went separately, as if they had not belonged to the rest, and bought more. John took the horse to bring it home, and the sack which the carpenter carried his tools in, to put it in. The carpenter went to work and made them benches and stools to sit on, such as the wood he could get would afford, and a kind of a table to dine on.

They were taken no notice of for two or three days; but after that, abundance of people ran out of the town to look at them, and all the country was alarmed about them. The people at first seemed afraid to come near them; and, on the other hand, they desired the people to keep off, for there was a rumor that the plague was at Waltham, and that it had been in Epping two or three days. So John called out to them not to come to them. “For,” says he, “we are all whole and sound people here, and we would not have you bring the plague among us, nor pretend we brought it among you.”

After this, the parish officers came up to them, and parleyed with them at a distance, and desired to know who they were, and by what authority they pretended to fix their stand at that place. John answered very frankly, they were poor distressed people from London, who, foreseeing the misery they should be reduced to if the plague spread into the city, had fled out in time for their lives, and, having no acquaintance or relations to fly to, had first taken up at Islington, but, the plague being come into that town, were fled farther; and, as they supposed that the people of Epping might have refused them coming into their town, they had pitched their tents thus in the open field and in the forest, being willing to bear all the hardships of such a disconsolate lodging rather than have any one think, or be afraid, that they should receive injury by them.

At first the Epping people talked roughly to them, and told them they must remove; that this was no place for them; and that they pretended to be sound and well, but that they might be infected with the plague, for aught they knew, and might infect the whole country, and they could not suffer them there.

John argued very calmly with them a great while, and told them that London was the place by which they, that is, the townsmen of Epping, and all the country round them, subsisted; to whom they sold the produce of their lands, and out of whom they made the rents of their farms; and to be so cruel to the inhabitants of London, or to any of those by whom they gained so much, was very hard; and they would be loath to have it remembered hereafter, and have it told, how barbarous, how inhospitable, and how unkind they were to the people of London when they fled from the face of the most terrible enemy in the world; that it would be enough to make the name of an Epping man hateful throughout all the city, and to have the rabble stone them in the very streets whenever they came so much as to market; that they were not yet secure from being visited themselves, and that, as he heard, Waltham was already; that they would think it very hard, that, when any of them fled for fear before they were touched, they should be denied the liberty of lying so much as in the open fields.

The Epping men told them again that they, indeed, said they were sound, and free from the infection, but that they had no assurance of it; and that it was reported that there had been a great rabble of people at Walthamstow, who made such pretenses of being sound as they did, but that they threatened to plunder the town, and force their way, whether the parish officers would or no; that there were near two hundred of them, and had arms and tents like Low Country soldiers; that they extorted provisions from the town by threatening them with living upon them at free quarter, showing their arms, and talking in the language of soldiers; and that several of them having gone away towards Rumford and Brentwood, the country had been infected by them, and the plague spread into both those large towns, so that the people durst not go to market there, as usual; that it was very likely they were some of that party, and, if so, they deserved to be sent to the county jail, and be secured till they had made satisfaction for the damage they had done, and for the terror and fright they had put the country into.

John answered, that what other people had done was nothing to them; that they assured them they were all of one company; that they had never been more in number than they saw them at that time (which, by the way, was very true); that they came out in two separate companies, but joined by the way, their cases being the same; that they were ready to give what account of themselves anybody desired of them, and to give in their names and places of abode, that so they might be called to an account for any disorder that they might be guilty of; that the townsmen might see they were content to live hardly, and only desired a little room to breathe in on the forest, where it was wholesome (for where it was not, they could not stay, and would decamp if they found it otherwise there).

“But,” said the townsmen, “we have a great charge of poor upon our hands already, and we must take care not to increase it. We suppose you can give us no security against your being chargeable to our parish and to the inhabitants, any more than you can of being dangerous to us as to the infection.”

“Why, look you,” says John, “as to being chargeable to you, we hope we shall not. If you will relieve us with provisions for our present necessity, we will be very thankful. As we all lived without charity when we were at home, so we will oblige ourselves fully to repay you, if God please to bring us back to our own families and houses in safety, and to restore health to the people of London.

“As to our dying here, we assure you, if any of us die, we that survive will bury them, and put you to no expense, except it should be that we should all die, and then, indeed, the last man, not being able to bury himself, would put you to that single expense; which I am persuaded,” says John, “he would leave enough behind him to pay you for the expense of.

“On the other hand,” says John, “if you will shut up all bowels of compassion, and not relieve us at all, we shall not extort anything by violence, or steal from any one; but when that little we have is spent, if we perish for want, God’s will be done!”

John wrought so upon the townsmen by talking thus rationally and smoothly to them, that they went away; and though they did not give any consent to their staying there, yet they did not molest them, and the poor people continued there three or four days longer without any disturbance. In this time they had got some remote acquaintance with a victualing house on the outskirts of the town, to whom they called at a distance to bring some little things that they wanted, and which they caused to be set down at some distance, and always paid for very honestly.

During this time the younger people of the town came frequently pretty near them, and would stand and look at them, and would sometimes talk with them at some space between; and particularly it was observed that the first sabbath day the poor people kept retired, worshiped God together, and were heard to sing psalms.

These things, and a quiet, inoffensive behavior, began to get them the good opinion of the country, and the people began to pity them and speak very well of them; the consequence of which was, that upon the occasion of a very wet, rainy night, a certain gentleman who lived in the neighborhood sent them a little cart with twelve trusses or bundles of straw, as well for them to lodge upon as to cover and thatch their huts, and to keep them dry. The minister of a parish not far off, not knowing of the other, sent them also about two bushels of wheat and half a bushel of white pease.

They were very thankful, to be sure, for this relief, and particularly the straw was a very great comfort to them; for though the ingenious carpenter had made them frames to lie in, like troughs, and filled them with leaves of trees and such things as they could get, and had cut all their tent cloth out to make coverlids, yet they lay damp and hard and unwholesome till this straw came, which was to them like feather beds, and, as John said, more welcome than feather beds would have been at another time.

This gentleman and the minister having thus begun, and given an example of charity to these wanderers, others quickly followed; and they received every day some benevolence or other from the people, but chiefly from the gentlemen who dwelt in the country round about. Some sent them chairs, stools, tables, and such household things as they gave notice they wanted. Some sent them blankets, rugs, and coverlids; some, earthenware; and some, kitchen ware for ordering their food.

Encouraged by this good usage, their carpenter, in a few days, built them a large shed or house with rafters, and a roof in form, and an upper floor, in which they lodged warm, for the weather began to be damp and cold in the beginning of September; but this house being very well thatched, and the sides and roof very thick, kept out the cold well enough. He made also an earthen wall at one end, with a chimney in it; and another of the company, with a vast deal of trouble and pains, made a funnel to the chimney to carry out the smoke.

Here they lived comfortably, though coarsely, till the beginning of September, when they had the bad news to hear, whether true or not, that the plague, which was very hot at Waltham Abbey on the one side, and Rumford and Brentwood on the other side, was also come to Epping, to Woodford, and to most of the towns upon the forest; and which, as they said, was brought down among them chiefly by the higglers, and such people as went to and from London with provisions.

If this was true, it was an evident contradiction to the report which was afterwards spread all over England, but which, as I have said, I cannot confirm of my own knowledge, namely, that the market people carrying provisions to the city never got the infection or carried it back into the country; both which, I have been assured, has been false.

It might be that they were preserved even beyond expectation, though not to a miracle; that abundance went and came and were not touched; and that was much encouragement for the poor people of London, who had been completely miserable if the people that brought provisions to the markets had not been many times wonderfully preserved, or at least more preserved than could be reasonably expected.

But these new inmates began to be disturbed more effectually, for the towns about them were really infected. And they began to be afraid to trust one another so much as to go abroad for such things as they wanted; and this pinched them very hard, for now they had little or nothing but what the charitable gentlemen of the country supplied them with. But, for their encouragement, it happened that other gentlemen of the country, who had not sent them anything before, began to hear of them and supply them. And one sent them a large pig, that is to say, a porker; another, two sheep; and another sent them a calf: in short, they had meat enough, and sometimes had cheese and milk, and such things. They were chiefly put to it for bread; for when the gentlemen sent them corn, they had nowhere to bake it or to grind it. This made them eat the first two bushels of wheat that was sent them, in parched corn, as the Israelites of old did, without grinding or making bread of it.

At last they found means to carry their corn to a windmill near Woodford, where they had it ground; and afterwards the biscuit baker made a hearth so hollow and dry, that he could bake biscuit cakes tolerably well, and thus they came into a condition to live without any assistance or supplies from the towns. And it was well they did; for the country was soon after fully infected, and about a hundred and twenty were said to have died of the distemper in the villages near them, which was a terrible thing to them.

On this they called a new council, and now the towns had no need to be afraid they should settle near them; but, on the contrary, several families of the poorer sort of the inhabitants quitted their houses, and built huts in the forest, after the same manner as they had done. But it was observed that several of these poor people that had so removed had the sickness even in their huts or booths, the reason of which was plain: namely, not because they removed into the air, but because they did not remove time enough, that is to say, not till, by openly conversing with other people, their neighbors, they had the distemper upon them (or, as may be said, among them), and so carried it about with them whither they went; or (2) because they were not careful enough, after they were safely removed out of the towns, not to come in again and mingle with the diseased people.

But be it which of these it will, when our travelers began to perceive that the plague was not only in the towns, but even in the tents and huts on the forest near them, they began then not only to be afraid, but to think of decamping and removing; for, had they staid, they would have been in manifest danger of their lives.

It is not to be wondered that they were greatly afflicted at being obliged to quit the place where they had been so kindly received, and where they had been treated with so much humanity and charity; but necessity, and the hazard of life which they came out so far to preserve, prevailed with them, and they saw no remedy. John, however, thought of a remedy for their present misfortune; namely, that he would first acquaint that gentleman who was their principal benefactor with the distress they were in, and to crave his assistance and advice.

This good charitable gentleman encouraged them to quit the place, for fear they should be cut off from any retreat at all by the violence of the distemper; but whither they should go, that he found very hard to direct them to. At last John asked of him, whether he, being a justice of the peace, would give them certificates of health to other justices who they might come before, that so, whatever might be their lot, they might not be repulsed, now they had been also so long from London. This his worship immediately granted, and gave them proper letters of health; and from thence they were at liberty to travel whither they pleased.

Accordingly they had a full certificate of health, intimating that they had resided in a village in the county of Essex so long; that, being examined and scrutinized sufficiently, and having been retired from all conversation for above forty days, without any appearance of sickness, they were therefore certainly concluded to be sound men, and might be safely entertained anywhere, having at last removed rather for fear of the plague, which was come into such a town, rather than for having any signal of infection upon them, or upon any belonging to them.

With this certificate they removed, though with great reluctance; and, John inclining not to go far from home, they removed towards the marshes on the side of Waltham. But here they found a man who, it seems, kept a weir or stop upon the river, made to raise water for the barges which go up and down the river; and he terrified them with dismal stories of the sickness having been spread into all the towns on the river and near the river, on the side of Middlesex and Hertfordshire (that is to say, into Waltham, Waltham Cross, Enfield, and Ware, and all the towns on the road), that they were afraid to go that way; though it seems the man imposed upon them, for that the thing was not really true.

However, it terrified them, and they resolved to move across the forest towards Rumford and Brentwood; but they heard that there were numbers of people fled out of London that way, who lay up and down in the forest, reaching near Rumford, and who, having no subsistence or habitation, not only lived oddly, and suffered great extremities in the woods and fields for want of relief, but were said to be made so desperate by those extremities, as that they offered many violences to the country, robbed and plundered, and killed cattle, and the like; and others, building huts and hovels by the roadside, begged, and that with an importunity next door to demanding relief: so that the country was very uneasy, and had been obliged to take some of them up.

This, in the first place, intimated to them that they would be sure to find the charity and kindness of the county, which they had found here where they were before, hardened and shut up against them; and that, on the other hand, they would be questioned wherever they came, and would be in danger of violence from others in like cases with themselves.

Upon all these considerations, John, their captain, in all their names, went back to their good friend and benefactor who had relieved them before, and, laying their case truly before him, humbly asked his advice; and he as kindly advised them to take up their old quarters again, or, if not, to remove but a little farther out of the road, and directed them to a proper place for them. And as they really wanted some house, rather than huts, to shelter them at that time of the year, it growing on towards Michaelmas, they found an old decayed house, which had been formerly some cottage or little habitation, but was so out of repair as scarce habitable; and by consent of a farmer, to whose farm it belonged, they got leave to make what use of it they could.

The ingenious joiner, and all the rest by his directions, went to work with it, and in a very few days made it capable to shelter them all in case of bad weather; and in which there was an old chimney and an old oven, though both lying in ruins, yet they made them both fit for use; and, raising additions, sheds, and lean-to’s on every side, they soon made the house capable to hold them all.

They chiefly wanted boards to make window shutters, floors, doors, and several other things; but as the gentleman above favored them, and the country was by that means made easy with them, and, above all, that they were known to be all sound and in good health, everybody helped them with what they could spare.

Here they encamped for good and all, and resolved to remove no more. They saw plainly how terribly alarmed that country was everywhere at anybody that came from London, and that they should have no admittance anywhere but with the utmost difficulty; at least no friendly reception and assistance, as they had received here.

Now, although they received great assistance and encouragement from the country gentlemen, and from the people round about them, yet they were put to great straits; for the weather grew cold and wet in October and November, and they had not been used to so much hardship, so that they got cold in their limbs, and distempers, but never had the infection. And thus about December they came home to the city again.

I give this story thus at large, principally to give an account what became of the great numbers of people which immediately appeared in the city as soon as the sickness abated; for, as I have said, great numbers of those that were able, and had retreats in the country, fled to those retreats. So when it was increased to such a frightful extremity as I have related, the middling people who had not friends fled to all parts of the country where they could get shelter, as well those that had money to relieve themselves as those that had not. Those that had money always fled farthest, because they were able to subsist themselves; but those who were empty suffered, as I have said, great hardships, and were often driven by necessity to relieve their wants at the expense of the country. By that means the country was made very uneasy at them, and sometimes took them up, though even then they scarce knew what to do with them, and were always very backward to punish them; but often, too, they forced them from place to place, till they were obliged to come back again to London.

I have, since my knowing this story of John and his brother, inquired, and found that there were a great many of the poor disconsolate people, as above, fled into the country every way; and some of them got little sheds and barns and outhouses to live in, where they could obtain so much kindness of the country, and especially where they had any, the least satisfactory account to give of themselves, and particularly that they did not come out of London too late. But others, and that in great numbers, built themselves little huts and retreats in the fields and woods, and lived like hermits in holes and caves, or any place they could find, and where, we may be sure, they suffered great extremities, such that many of them were obliged to come back again, whatever the danger was. And so those little huts were often found empty, and the country people supposed the inhabitants lay dead in them of the plague, and would not go near them for fear, no, not in a great while; nor is it unlikely but that some of the unhappy wanderers might die so all alone, even sometimes for want of help, as particularly in one tent or hut was found a man dead, and on the gate of a field just by was cut with his knife, in uneven letters, the following words, by which it may be supposed the other man escaped, or that, one dying first, the other buried him as well as he could:—

O m I s E r Y!
We Bo T H Sh a L L D y E,
W o E, W o E

History of the Plague in England - Contents    |     § 12

Back    |    Words Home    |    Daniel Defoe Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback