History of the Plague in England

§ 16

Daniel Defoe

IT MUST NOT be forgot here to take some notice of the state of trade during the time of this common calamity; and this with respect to foreign trade, as also to our home trade.

As to foreign trade, there needs little to be said. The trading nations of Europe were all afraid of us. No port of France, or Holland, or Spain, or Italy, would admit our ships, or correspond with us. Indeed, we stood on ill terms with the Dutch, and were in a furious war with them, though in a bad condition to fight abroad, who had such dreadful enemies to struggle with at home.

Our merchants were accordingly at a full stop. Their ships could go nowhere; that is to say, to no place abroad. Their manufactures and merchandise, that is to say, of our growth, would not be touched abroad. They were as much afraid of our goods as they were of our people; and indeed they had reason, for our woolen manufactures are as retentive of infection as human bodies, and, if packed up by persons infected, would receive the infection, and be as dangerous to the touch as a man would be that was infected; and therefore when any English vessel arrived in foreign countries, if they did take the goods on shore, they always caused the bales to be opened and aired in places appointed for that purpose. But from London they would not suffer them to come into port, much less to unload their goods, upon any terms whatever; and this strictness was especially used with them in Spain and Italy. In Turkey and the islands of the Arches, indeed, as they are called, as well those belonging to the Turks as to the Venetians, they were not so very rigid. In the first there was no obstruction at all, and four ships which were then in the river loading for Italy (that is, for Leghorn and Naples) being denied product, as they call it, went on to Turkey, and were freely admitted to unlade their cargo without any difficulty, only that when they arrived there, some of their cargo was not fit for sale in that country, and other parts of it being consigned to merchants at Leghorn, the captains of the ships had no right nor any orders to dispose of the goods; so that great inconveniences followed to the merchants. But this was nothing but what the necessity of affairs required; and the merchants at Leghorn and Naples, having notice given them, sent again from thence to take care of the effects which were particularly consigned to those ports, and to bring back in other ships such as were improper for the markets at Smyrna and Scanderoon.

The inconveniences in Spain and Portugal were still greater; for they would by no means suffer our ships, especially those from London, to come into any of their ports, much less to unlade. There was a report that one of our ships having by stealth delivered her cargo, among which were some bales of English cloth, cotton, kerseys, and such like goods, the Spaniards caused all the goods to be burned, and punished the men with death who were concerned in carrying them on shore. This I believe was in part true, though I do not affirm it; but it is not at all unlikely, seeing the danger was really very great, the infection being so violent in London.

I heard likewise that the plague was carried into those countries by some of our ships, and particularly to the port of Faro, in the kingdom of Algarve, belonging to the King of Portugal, and that several persons died of it there; but it was not confirmed.

On the other hand, though the Spaniards and Portuguese were so shy of us, it is most certain that the plague, as has been said, keeping at first much at that end of the town next Westminster, the merchandising part of the town, such as the city and the waterside, was perfectly sound till at least the beginning of July, and the ships in the river till the beginning of August; for to the 1st of July there had died but seven within the whole city, and but sixty within the liberties; but one in all the parishes of Stepney, Aldgate, and Whitechapel, and but two in all the eight parishes of Southwark. But it was the same thing abroad, for the bad news was gone over the whole world, that the city of London was infected with the plague; and there was no inquiring there how the infection proceeded, or at which part of the town it was begun or was reached to.

Besides, after it began to spread, it increased so fast, and the bills grew so high all on a sudden, that it was to no purpose to lessen the report of it, or endeavor to make the people abroad think it better than it was. The account which the weekly bills gave in was sufficient; and that there died two thousand to three or four thousand a week was sufficient to alarm the whole trading part of the world: and the following time being so dreadful also in the very city itself, put the whole world, I say, upon their guard against it.

You may be sure also that the report of these things lost nothing in the carriage. The plague was itself very terrible, and the distress of the people very great, as you may observe of what I have said, but the rumor was infinitely greater; and it must not be wondered that our friends abroad, as my brother’s correspondents in particular, were told there (namely, in Portugal and Italy, where he chiefly traded), that in London there died twenty thousand in a week; that the dead bodies lay unburied by heaps; that the living were not sufficient to bury the dead, or the sound to look after the sick; that all the kingdom was infected likewise, so that it was an universal malady such as was never heard of in those parts of the world. And they could hardly believe us when we gave them an account how things really were; and how there was not above one tenth part of the people dead; that there were five hundred thousand left that lived all the time in the town; that now the people began to walk the streets again, and those who were fled to return; there was no miss of the usual throng of people in the streets, except as every family might miss their relations and neighbors; and the like. I say, they could not believe these things; and if inquiry were now to be made in Naples, or in other cities on the coast of Italy, they would tell you there was a dreadful infection in London so many years ago, in which, as above, there died twenty thousand in a week, etc., just as we have had it reported in London that there was a plague in the city of Naples in the year 1656, in which there died twenty thousand people in a day, of which I have had very good satisfaction that it was utterly false.

But these extravagant reports were very prejudicial to our trade, as well as unjust and injurious in themselves; for it was a long time after the plague was quite over before our trade could recover itself in those parts of the world; and the Flemings and Dutch, but especially the last, made very great advantages of it, having all the market to themselves, and even buying our manufactures in the several parts of England where the plague was not, and carrying them to Holland and Flanders, and from thence transporting them to Spain and to Italy, as if they had been of their own making.

But they were detected sometimes, and punished, that is to say, their goods confiscated, and ships also; for if it was true that our manufactures as well as our people were infected, and that it was dangerous to touch or to open and receive the smell of them, then those people ran the hazard, by that clandestine trade, not only of carrying the contagion into their own country, but also of infecting the nations to whom they traded with those goods; which, considering how many lives might be lost in consequence of such an action, must be a trade that no men of conscience could suffer themselves to be concerned in.

I do not take upon me to say that any harm was done, I mean of that kind, by those people; but I doubt I need not make any such proviso in the case of our own country; for either by our people of London, or by the commerce, which made their conversing with all sorts of people in every county, and of every considerable town, necessary,—I say, by this means the plague was first or last spread all over the kingdom, as well in London as in all the cities and great towns, especially in the trading manufacturing towns and seaports: so that first or last all the considerable places in England were visited more or less, and the kingdom of Ireland in some places, but not so universally. How it fared with the people in Scotland, I had no opportunity to inquire.

It is to be observed, that, while the plague continued so violent in London, the outports, as they are called, enjoyed a very great trade, especially to the adjacent countries and to our own plantations. For example, the towns of Colchester, Yarmouth, and Hull, on that side of England, exported to Holland and Hamburg the manufactures of the adjacent counties for several months after the trade with London was, as it were, entirely shut up. Likewise the cities of Bristol and Exeter, with the port of Plymouth, had the like advantage to Spain, to the Canaries, to Guinea, and to the West Indies, and particularly to Ireland. But as the plague spread itself every way after it had been in London to such a degree as it was in August and September, so all or most of those cities and towns were infected first or last, and then trade was, as it were, under a general embargo, or at a full stop, as I shall observe further when I speak of our home trade.

One thing, however, must be observed, that as to ships coming in from abroad (as many, you may be sure, did), some who were out in all parts of the world a considerable while before, and some who, when they went out, knew nothing of an infection, or at least of one so terrible,—these came up the river boldly, and delivered their cargoes as they were obliged to do, except just in the two months of August and September, when, the weight of the infection lying, as I may say, all below bridge, nobody durst appear in business for a while. But as this continued but for a few weeks, the homeward-bound ships, especially such whose cargoes were not liable to spoil, came to an anchor, for a time, short of the Pool, or freshwater part of the river, even as low as the river Medway, where several of them ran in; and others lay at the Nore, and in the Hope below Gravesend: so that by the latter end of October there was a very great fleet of homeward-bound ships to come up, such as the like had not been known for many years.

Two particular trades were carried on by water carriage all the while of the infection, and that with little or no interruption, very much to the advantage and comfort of the poor distressed people of the city; and those were the coasting trade for corn, and the Newcastle trade for coals.

The first of these was particularly carried on by small vessels from the port of Hull, and other places in the Humber, by which great quantities of corn were brought in from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire; the other part of this corn trade was from Lynn in Norfolk, from Wells, and Burnham, and from Yarmouth, all in the same county; and the third branch was from the river Medway, and from Milton, Feversham, Margate, and Sandwich, and all the other little places and ports round the coast of Kent and Essex.

There was also a very good trade from the coast of Suffolk, with corn, butter, and cheese. These vessels kept a constant course of trade, and without interruption came up to that market known still by the name of Bear Key, where they supplied the city plentifully with corn when land carriage began to fail, and when the people began to be sick of coming from many places in the country.

This also was much of it owing to the prudence and conduct of the lord mayor, who took such care to keep the masters and seamen from danger when they came up, causing their corn to be bought off at any time they wanted a market (which, however, was very seldom), and causing the cornfactors immediately to unlade and deliver the vessels laden with corn, that they had very little occasion to come out of their ships or vessels, the money being always carried on board to them, and put it into a pail of vinegar before it was carried.

The second trade was that of coals from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, without which the city would have been greatly distressed; for not in the streets only, but in private houses and families, great quantities of coal were then burnt, even all the summer long, and when the weather was hottest, which was done by the advice of the physicians. Some, indeed, opposed it, and insisted that to keep the houses and rooms hot was a means to propagate the distemper, which was a fermentation and heat already in the blood; that it was known to spread and increase in hot weather, and abate in cold; and therefore they alleged that all contagious distempers are the worst for heat, because the contagion was nourished, and gained strength, in hot weather, and was, as it were, propagated in heat.

Others said they granted that heat in the climate might propagate infection, as sultry hot weather fills the air with vermin, and nourishes innumerable numbers and kinds of venomous creatures, which breed in our food, in the plants, and even in our bodies, by the very stench of which infection may be propagated; also that heat in the air, or heat of weather, as we ordinarily call it, makes bodies relax and faint, exhausts the spirits, opens the pores, and makes us more apt to receive infection or any evil influence, be it from noxious, pestilential vapors, or any other thing in the air; but that the heat of fire, and especially of coal fires, kept in our houses or near us, had quite a different operation, the heat being not of the same kind, but quick and fierce, tending not to nourish, but to consume and dissipate, all those noxious fumes which the other kind of heat rather exhaled, and stagnated than separated, and burnt up. Besides, it was alleged that the sulphureous and nitrous particles that are often found to be in the coal, with that bituminous substance which burns, are all assisting to clear and purge the air, and render it wholesome and safe to breathe in, after the noxious particles (as above) are dispersed and burnt up.

The latter opinion prevailed at that time, and, as I must confess, I think with good reason; and the experience of the citizens confirmed it, many houses which had constant fires kept in the rooms having never been infected at all; and I must join my experience to it, for I found the keeping of good fires kept our rooms sweet and wholesome, and I do verily believe made our whole family so, more than would otherwise have been.

But I return to the coals as a trade. It was with no little difficulty that this trade was kept open, and particularly because, as we were in an open war with the Dutch at that time, the Dutch capers at first took a great many of our collier ships, which made the rest cautious, and made them to stay to come in fleets together. But after some time the capers were either afraid to take them, or their masters, the States, were afraid they should, and forbade them, lest the plague should be among them, which made them fare the better.

For the security of those northern traders, the coal ships were ordered by my lord mayor not to come up into the Pool above a certain number at a time; and ordered lighters and other vessels, such as the woodmongers (that is, the wharf keepers) or coal sellers furnished, to go down and take out the coals as low as Deptford and Greenwich, and some farther down.

Others delivered great quantities of coals in particular places where the ships could come to the shore, as at Greenwich, Blackwall, and other places, in vast heaps, as if to be kept for sale; but were then fetched away after the ships which brought them were gone; so that the seamen had no communication with the river men, nor so much as came near one another.

Yet all this caution could not effectually prevent the distemper getting among the colliery, that is to say, among the ships, by which a great many seamen died of it; and that which was still worse was, that they carried it down to Ipswich and Yarmouth, to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and other places on the coast, where, especially at Newcastle and at Sunderland, it carried off a great number of people.

The making so many fires as above did indeed consume an unusual quantity of coals; and that upon one or two stops of the ships coming up (whether by contrary weather or by the interruption of enemies, I do not remember); but the price of coals was exceedingly dear, even as high as four pounds a chaldron; but it soon abated when the ships came in, and, as afterwards they had a freer passage, the price was very reasonable all the rest of that year.

The public fires which were made on these occasions, as I have calculated it, must necessarily have cost the city about two hundred chaldron of coals a week, if they had continued, which was indeed a very great quantity; but as it was thought necessary, nothing was spared. However, as some of the physicians cried them down, they were not kept alight above four or five days. The fires were ordered thus:—

One at the Custom House; one at Billingsgate; one at Queenhithe, and one at the Three Cranes; one in Blackfriars, and one at the gate of Bridewell; one at the corner of Leadenhall Street and Gracechurch; one at the north and one at the south gate of the Royal Exchange; one at Guildhall, and one at Blackwell Hall gate; one at the lord mayor’s door in St. Helen’s; one at the west entrance into St. Paul’s; and one at the entrance into Bow Church. I do not remember whether there was any at the city gates, but one at the bridge foot there was, just by St. Magnus Church.

I know some have quarreled since that at the experiment, and said that there died the more people because of those fires; but I am persuaded those that say so offer no evidence to prove it, neither can I believe it on any account whatever.

It remains to give some account of the state of trade at home in England during this dreadful time, and particularly as it relates to the manufactures and the trade in the city. At the first breaking out of the infection there was, as it is easy to suppose, a very great fright among the people, and consequently a general stop of trade, except in provisions and necessaries of life; and even in those things, as there was a vast number of people fled and a very great number always sick, besides the number which died, so there could not be above two thirds, if above one half, of the consumption of provisions in the city as used to be.

It pleased God to send a very plentiful year of corn and fruit, and not of hay or grass, by which means bread was cheap by reason of the plenty of corn, flesh was cheap by reason of the scarcity of grass, but butter and cheese were dear for the same reason; and hay in the market, just beyond Whitechapel Bars, was sold at four pounds per load; but that affected not the poor. There was a most excessive plenty of all sorts of fruit, such as apples, pears, plums, cherries, grapes; and they were the cheaper because of the wants of the people; but this made the poor eat them to excess, and this brought them into surfeits and the like, which often precipitated them into the plague.

But to come to matters of trade. First, foreign exportation being stopped, or at least very much interrupted and rendered difficult, a general stop of all those manufactures followed of course, which were usually brought for exportation; and, though sometimes merchants abroad were importunate for goods, yet little was sent, the passages being so generally stopped that the English ships would not be admitted, as is said already, into their port.

This put a stop to the manufactures that were for exportation in most parts of England, except in some outports; and even that was soon stopped, for they all had the plague in their turn. But though this was felt all over England, yet, what was still worse, all intercourse of trade for home consumption of manufactures, especially those which usually circulated through the Londoners’ hands, was stopped at once, the trade of the city being stopped.

All kinds of handicrafts in the city, etc., tradesmen and mechanics, were, as I have said before, out of employ; and this occasioned the putting off and dismissing an innumerable number of journeymen and workmen of all sorts, seeing nothing was done relating to such trades but what might be said to be absolutely necessary.

This caused the multitude of single people in London to be unprovided for, as also of families whose living depended upon the labor of the heads of those families. I say, this reduced them to extreme misery; and I must confess it is for the honor of the city of London, and will be for many ages, as long as this is to be spoken of, that they were able to supply with charitable provision the wants of so many thousands of those as afterwards fell sick and were distressed; so that it may be safely averred that nobody perished for want, at least that the magistrates had any notice given them of.

This stagnation of our manufacturing trade in the country would have put the people there to much greater difficulties, but that the master workmen, clothiers, and others, to the uttermost of their stocks and strength, kept on making their goods to keep the poor at work, believing that, as soon as the sickness should abate, they would have a quick demand in proportion to the decay of their trade at that time; but as none but those masters that were rich could do thus, and that many were poor and not able, the manufacturing trade in England suffered greatly, and the poor were pinched all over England by the calamity of the city of London only.

It is true that the next year made them full amends by another terrible calamity upon the city; so that the city by one calamity impoverished and weakened the country, and by another calamity (even terrible, too, of its kind) enriched the country, and made them again amends: for an infinite quantity of household stuff, wearing apparel, and other things, besides whole warehouses filled with merchandise and manufactures, such as come from all parts of England, were consumed in the fire of London the next year after this terrible visitation. It is incredible what a trade this made all over the whole kingdom, to make good the want, and to supply that loss; so that, in short, all the manufacturing hands in the nation were set on work, and were little enough for several years to supply the market, and answer the demands. All foreign markets also were empty of our goods, by the stop which had been occasioned by the plague, and before an open trade was allowed again; and the prodigious demand at home falling in, joined to make a quick vent for all sorts of goods; so that there never was known such a trade all over England, for the time, as was in the first seven years after the plague, and after the fire of London.

History of the Plague in England - Contents    |     § 17

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