History of the Plague in England

§ 14

Daniel Defoe

THIS LEADS ME again to mention the time when the plague first began, that is to say, when it became certain that it would spread over the whole town, when, as I have said, the better sort of people first took the alarm, and began to hurry themselves out of town. It was true, as I observed in its place, that the throng was so great, and the coaches, horses, wagons, and carts were so many, driving and dragging the people away, that it looked as if all the city was running away; and had any regulations been published that had been terrifying at that time, especially such as would pretend to dispose of the people otherwise than they would dispose of themselves, it would have put both the city and suburbs into the utmost confusion.

The magistrates wisely caused the people to be encouraged, made very good by-laws for the regulating the citizens, keeping good order in the streets, and making everything as eligible as possible to all sorts of people.

In the first place, the lord mayor and the sheriffs, the court of aldermen, and a certain number of the common councilmen, or their deputies, came to a resolution, and published it; viz., that they would not quit the city themselves, but that they would be always at hand for the preserving good order in every place, and for doing justice on all occasions, as also for the distributing the public charity to the poor, and, in a word, for the doing the duty and discharging the trust reposed in them by the citizens, to the utmost of their power.

In pursuance of these orders, the lord mayor, sheriffs, etc., held councils every day, more or less, for making such dispositions as they found needful for preserving the civil peace; and though they used the people with all possible gentleness and clemency, yet all manner of presumptuous rogues, such as thieves, housebreakers, plunderers of the dead or of the sick, were duly punished; and several declarations were continually published by the lord mayor and court of aldermen against such.

Also all constables and churchwardens were enjoined to stay in the city upon severe penalties, or to depute such able and sufficient housekeepers as the deputy aldermen or common councilmen of the precinct should approve, and for whom they should give security, and also security, in case of mortality, that they would forthwith constitute other constables in their stead.

These things reestablished the minds of the people very much, especially in the first of their fright, when they talked of making so universal a flight that the city would have been in danger of being entirely deserted of its inhabitants, except the poor, and the country of being plundered and laid waste by the multitude. Nor were the magistrates deficient in performing their part as boldly as they promised it; for my lord mayor and the sheriffs were continually in the streets and at places of the greatest danger; and though they did not care for having too great a resort of people crowding about them, yet in emergent cases they never denied the people access to them, and heard with patience all their grievances and complaints. My lord mayor had a low gallery built on purpose in his hall, where he stood, a little removed from the crowd, when any complaint came to be heard, that he might appear with as much safety as possible.

Likewise the proper officers, called my lord mayor’s officers, constantly attended in their turns, as they were in waiting; and if any of them were sick or infected, as some of them were, others were instantly employed to fill up, and officiate in their places till it was known whether the other should live or die.

In like manner the sheriffs and aldermen did, in their several stations and wards, where they were placed by office; and the sheriff’s officers or sergeants were appointed to receive orders from the respective aldermen in their turn; so that justice was executed in all cases without interruption. In the next place, it was one of their particular cares to see the orders for the freedom of the markets observed; and in this part either the lord mayor, or one or both of the sheriffs, were every market day on horseback to see their orders executed, and to see that the country people had all possible encouragement and freedom in their coming to the markets and going back again, and that no nuisance or frightful object should be seen in the streets to terrify them, or make them unwilling to come. Also the bakers were taken under particular order, and the master of the Bakers’ Company was, with his court of assistants, directed to see the order of my lord mayor for their regulation put in execution, and the due assize of bread, which was weekly appointed by my lord mayor, observed; and all the bakers were obliged to keep their ovens going constantly, on pain of losing the privileges of a freeman of the city of London.

By this means, bread was always to be had in plenty, and as cheap as usual, as I said above; and provisions were never wanting in the markets, even to such a degree that I often wondered at it, and reproached myself with being so timorous and cautious in stirring abroad, when the country people came freely and boldly to market, as if there had been no manner of infection in the city, or danger of catching it.

It was indeed one admirable piece of conduct in the said magistrates, that the streets were kept constantly clear and free from all manner of frightful objects, dead bodies, or any such things as were indecent or unpleasant; unless where anybody fell down suddenly, or died in the streets, as I have said above, and these were generally covered with some cloth or blanket, or removed into the next churchyard till night. All the needful works that carried terror with them, that were both dismal and dangerous, were done in the night. If any diseased bodies were removed, or dead bodies buried, or infected clothes burned, it was done in the night; and all the bodies which were thrown into the great pits in the several churchyards or burying grounds, as has been observed, were so removed in the night, and everything was covered and closed before day. So that in the daytime there was not the least signal of the calamity to be seen or heard of, except what was to be observed from the emptiness of the streets, and sometimes from the passionate outcries and lamentations of the people, out at their windows, and from the numbers of houses and shops shut up.

Nor was the silence and emptiness of the streets so much in the city as in the outparts, except just at one particular time, when, as I have mentioned, the plague came east, and spread over all the city. It was indeed a merciful disposition of God, that as the plague began at one end of the town first, as has been observed at large, so it proceeded progressively to other parts, and did not come on this way, or eastward, till it had spent its fury in the west part of the town; and so as it came on one way it abated another. For example:—

It began at St. Giles’s and the Westminster end of the town, and it was in its height in all that part by about the middle of July, viz., in St. Giles-in-the-Fields, St. Andrew’s, Holborn, St. Clement’s-Danes, St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, and in Westminster. The latter end of July it decreased in those parishes, and, coming east, it increased prodigiously in Cripplegate, St. Sepulchre’s, St. James’s, Clerkenwell, and St. Bride’s and Aldersgate. While it was in all these parishes, the city and all the parishes of the Southwark side of the water, and all Stepney, Whitechapel, Aldgate, Wapping, and Ratcliff, were very little touched; so that people went about their business unconcerned, carried on their trades, kept open their shops, and conversed freely with one another in all the city, the east and northeast suburbs, and in Southwark, almost as if the plague had not been among us.

Even when the north and northwest suburbs were fully infected, viz., Cripplegate, Clerkenwell, Bishopsgate, and Shoreditch, yet still all the rest were tolerably well. For example:—

From the 25th of July to the 1st of August the bill stood thus of all diseases:—

St. Giles’s, Cripplegate 554
St. Sepulchre’s 250
Clerkenwell 103
Bishopsgate 116
Shoreditch 110
Stepney Parish 127
Aldgate 92
Whitechapel 104
All the 97 parishes within the walls 228
All the parishes in Southwark 205

So that, in short, there died more that week in the two parishes of Cripplegate and St. Sepulchre’s by forty-eight than all the city, all the east suburbs, and all the Southwark parishes put together. This caused the reputation of the city’s health to continue all over England, and especially in the counties and markets adjacent, from whence our supply of provisions chiefly came, even much longer than that health itself continued; for when the people came into the streets from the country by Shoreditch and Bishopsgate, or by Old Street and Smithfield, they would see the outstreets empty, and the houses and shops shut, and the few people that were stirring there walk in the middle of the streets; but when they came within the city, there things looked better, and the markets and shops were open, and the people walking about the streets as usual, though not quite so many; and this continued till the latter end of August and the beginning of September.

But then the case altered quite; the distemper abated in the west and northwest parishes, and the weight of the infection lay on the city and the eastern suburbs, and the Southwark side, and this in a frightful manner.

Then indeed the city began to look dismal, shops to be shut, and the streets desolate. In the High Street, indeed, necessity made people stir abroad on many occasions; and there would be in the middle of the day a pretty many people, but in the mornings and evenings scarce any to be seen even there, no, not in Cornhill and Cheapside.

These observations of mine were abundantly confirmed by the weekly bills of mortality for those weeks, an abstract of which, as they respect the parishes which I have mentioned, and as they make the calculations I speak of very evident, take as follows.

The weekly bill which makes out this decrease of the burials in the west and north side of the city stands thus:—

From the 12th of September to the 19th—

St. Giles’s, Cripplegate 456
St. Giles-in-the-Fields 140
Clerkenwell 77
St. Sepulchre’s 214
St. Leonard, Shoreditch 183
Stepney Parish 716
Aldgate 629
Whitechapel 532
In the 97 parishes within the walls 1,493
In the 8 parishes on Southwark side 1,636

Here is a strange change of things indeed, and a sad change it was; and, had it held for two months more than it did, very few people would have been left alive; but then such, I say, was the merciful disposition of God, that when it was thus, the west and north part, which had been so dreadfully visited at first, grew, as you see, much better; and, as the people disappeared here, they began to look abroad again there; and the next week or two altered it still more, that is, more to the encouragement of the other part of the town. For example:—

Sept. 19-26. 
St. Giles’s, Cripplegate 277
St. Giles-in-the-Fields 119
Clerkenwell 76
St. Sepulchre’s 193
St. Leonard, Shoreditch 146
Stepney Parish 616
Aldgate 496
Whitechapel 346
In the 97 parishes within the walls 1,268
In the 8 parishes on Southwark side 1,390

Sept. 26-Oct. 3. 
St. Giles’s, Cripplegate 196
St. Giles-in-the-Fields 95
Clerkenwell 48
St. Sepulchre’s 137
St. Leonard, Shoreditch 128
Stepney Parish 674
Aldgate 372
Whitechapel 328
In the 97 parishes within the walls 1,149
In the 8 parishes on Southwark side 1,201

And now the misery of the city, and of the said east and south parts, was complete indeed; for, as you see, the weight of the distemper lay upon those parts, that is to say, the city, the eight parishes over the river, with the parishes of Aldgate, Whitechapel, and Stepney, and this was the time that the bills came up to such a monstrous height as that I mentioned before, and that eight or nine, and, as I believe, ten or twelve thousand a week died; for it is my settled opinion that they never could come at any just account of the numbers, for the reasons which I have given already.

Nay, one of the most eminent physicians, who has since published in Latin an account of those times and of his observations, says that in one week there died twelve thousand people, and that particularly there died four thousand in one night; though I do not remember that there ever was any such particular night so remarkably fatal as that such a number died in it. However, all this confirms what I have said above of the uncertainty of the bills of mortality, etc., of which I shall say more hereafter.

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