History of the Plague in England

§ 17

Daniel Defoe

IT REMAINS NOW that I should say something of the merciful part of this terrible judgment. The last week in September, the plague being come to its crisis, its fury began to assuage. I remember my friend Dr. Heath, coming to see me the week before, told me he was sure the violence of it would assuage in a few days; but when I saw the weekly bill of that week, which was the highest of the whole year, being 8,297 of all diseases, I upbraided him with it, and asked him what he had made his judgment from. His answer, however, was not so much to seek as I thought it would have been. “Look you,” says he: “by the number which are at this time sick and infected, there should have been twenty thousand dead the last week, instead of eight thousand, if the inveterate mortal contagion had been as it was two weeks ago; for then it ordinarily killed in two or three days, now not under eight or ten; and then not above one in five recovered, whereas I have observed that now not above two in five miscarry. And observe it from me, the next bill will decrease, and you will see many more people recover than used to do; for though a vast multitude are now everywhere infected, and as many every day fall sick, yet there will not so many die as there did, for the malignity of the distemper is abated;” adding that he began now to hope, nay, more than hope, that the infection had passed its crisis, and was going off. And accordingly so it was; for the next week being, as I said, the last in September, the bill decreased almost two thousand.

It is true, the plague was still at a frightful height, and the next bill was no less than 6,460, and the next to that 5,720; but still my friend’s observation was just, and it did appear the people did recover faster, and more in number, than they used to do; and indeed if it had not been so, what had been the condition of the city of London? For, according to my friend, there were not fewer than 60,000 people at that time infected, whereof, as above, 20,477 died, and near 40,000 recovered; whereas, had it been as it was before, 50,000 of that number would very probably have died, if not more, and 50,000 more would have sickened; for in a word the whole mass of people began to sicken, and it looked as if none would escape.

But this remark of my friend’s appeared more evident in a few weeks more; for the decrease went on, and another week in October it decreased 1,843, so that the number dead of the plague was but 2,665; and the next week it decreased 1,413 more, and yet it was seen plainly that there was abundance of people sick, nay, abundance more than ordinary, and abundance fell sick every day; but, as above, the malignity of the disease abated.

Such is the precipitant disposition of our people (whether it is so or not all over the world, that is none of my particular business to inquire; but I saw it apparently here), that, as upon the first sight of the infection they shunned one another, and fled from one another’s houses and from the city with an unaccountable, and, as I thought, unnecessary fright, so now, upon this notion spreading, viz., that the distemper was not so catching as formerly, and that if it was catched it was not so mortal, and seeing abundance of people who really fell sick recover again daily, they took to such a precipitant courage, and grew so entirely regardless of themselves and of the infection, that they made no more of the plague than of an ordinary fever, nor indeed so much. They not only went boldly into company with those who had tumors and carbuncles upon them that were running, and consequently contagious, but eat and drank with them, nay, into their houses to visit them, and even, as I was told, into their very chambers where they lay sick.

This I could not see rational. My friend Dr. Heath allowed, and it was plain to experience, that the distemper was as catching as ever, and as many fell sick, but only he alleged that so many of those that fell sick did not die; but I think that while many did die, and that at best the distemper itself was very terrible, the sores and swellings very tormenting, and the danger of death not left out of the circumstance of sickness, though not so frequent as before,—all those things, together with the exceeding tediousness of the cure, the loathsomeness of the disease, and many other articles, were enough to deter any man living from a dangerous mixture with the sick people, and make them as anxious almost to avoid the infection as before.

Nay, there was another thing which made the mere catching of the distemper frightful, and that was the terrible burning of the caustics which the surgeons laid on the swellings to bring them to break and to run; without which the danger of death was very great, even to the last; also the insufferable torment of the swellings, which, though it might not make people raving and distracted, as they were before, and as I have given several instances of already, yet they put the patient to inexpressible torment; and those that fell into it, though they did escape with life, yet they made bitter complaints of those that had told them there was no danger, and sadly repented their rashness and folly in venturing to run into the reach of it.

Nor did this unwary conduct of the people end here; for a great many that thus cast off their cautions suffered more deeply still, and though many escaped, yet many died; and at least it had this public mischief attending it, that it made the decrease of burials slower than it would otherwise have been; for, as this notion ran like lightning through the city, and the people’s heads were possessed with it, even as soon as the first great decrease in the bills appeared, we found that the two next bills did not decrease in proportion: the reason I take to be the people’s running so rashly into danger, giving up all their former cautions and care, and all shyness which they used to practice, depending that the sickness would not reach them, or that, if it did, they should not die.

The physicians opposed this thoughtless humor of the people with all their might, and gave out printed directions, spreading them all over the city and suburbs, advising the people to continue reserved, and to use still the utmost caution in their ordinary conduct, notwithstanding the decrease of the distemper; terrifying them with the danger of bringing a relapse upon the whole city, and telling them how such a relapse might be more fatal and dangerous than the whole visitation that had been already; with many arguments and reasons to explain and prove that part to them, and which are too long to repeat here.

But it was all to no purpose. The audacious creatures were so possessed with the first joy, and so surprised with the satisfaction of seeing a vast decrease in the weekly bills, that they were impenetrable by any new terrors, and would not be persuaded but that the bitterness of death was passed; and it was to no more purpose to talk to them than to an east wind; but they opened shops, went about streets, did business, and conversed with anybody that came in their way to converse with, whether with business or without, neither inquiring of their health, or so much as being apprehensive of any danger from them, though they knew them not to be sound.

This imprudent, rash conduct cost a great many their lives who had with great care and caution shut themselves up, and kept retired, as it were, from all mankind, and had by that means, under God’s providence, been preserved through all the heat of that infection.

This rash and foolish conduct of the people went so far, that the ministers took notice to them of it, and laid before them both the folly and danger of it; and this checked it a little, so that they grew more cautious. But it had another effect, which they could not check: for as the first rumor had spread, not over the city only, but into the country, it had the like effect; and the people were so tired with being so long from London, and so eager to come back, that they flocked to town without fear or forecast, and began to show themselves in the streets as if all the danger was over. It was indeed surprising to see it; for though there died still from a thousand to eighteen hundred a week, yet the people flocked to town as if all had been well.

The consequence of this was, that the bills increased again four hundred the very first week in November; and, if I might believe the physicians, there were above three thousand fell sick that week, most of them newcomers too.

One John Cock, a barber in St. Martin’s-le-Grand, was an eminent example of this (I mean of the hasty return of the people when the plague was abated). This John Cock had left the town with his whole family, and locked up his house, and was gone into the country, as many others did; and, finding the plague so decreased in November that there died but 905 per week of all diseases, he ventured home again. He had in his family ten persons; that is to say, himself and wife, five children, two apprentices, and a maidservant. He had not been returned to his house above a week, and began to open his shop and carry on his trade, but the distemper broke out in his family, and within about five days they all died except one: that is to say, himself, his wife, all his five children, and his two apprentices; and only the maid remained alive.

But the mercy of God was greater to the rest than we had reason to expect; for the malignity, as I have said, of the distemper was spent, the contagion was exhausted, and also the wintry weather came on apace, and the air was clear and cold, with some sharp frosts; and this increasing still, most of those that had fallen sick recovered, and the health of the city began to return. There were indeed some returns of the distemper, even in the month of December, and the bills increased near a hundred; but it went off again, and so in a short while things began to return to their own channel. And wonderful it was to see how populous the city was again all on a sudden; so that a stranger could not miss the numbers that were lost, neither was there any miss of the inhabitants as to their dwellings. Few or no empty houses were to be seen, or, if there were some, there was no want of tenants for them.

I wish I could say, that, as the city had a new face, so the manners of the people had a new appearance. I doubt not but there were many that retained a sincere sense of their deliverance, and that were heartily thankful to that Sovereign Hand that had protected them in so dangerous a time. It would be very uncharitable to judge otherwise in a city so populous, and where the people were so devout as they were here in the time of the visitation itself; but, except what of this was to be found in particular families and faces, it must be acknowledged that the general practice of the people was just as it was before, and very little difference was to be seen.

Some, indeed, said things were worse; that the morals of the people declined from this very time; that the people, hardened by the danger they had been in, like seamen after a storm is over, were more wicked and more stupid, more bold and hardened in their vices and immoralities, than they were before; but I will not carry it so far, neither. It would take up a history of no small length to give a particular of all the gradations by which the course of things in this city came to be restored again, and to run in their own channel as they did before.

Some parts of England were now infected as violently as London had been. The cities of Norwich, Peterborough, Lincoln, Colchester, and other places, were now visited, and the magistrates of London began to set rules for our conduct as to corresponding with those cities. It is true, we could not pretend to forbid their people coming to London, because it was impossible to know them asunder; so, after many consultations, the lord mayor and court of aldermen were obliged to drop it. All they could do was to warn and caution the people not to entertain in their houses, or converse with, any people who they knew came from such infected places.

But they might as well have talked to the air; for the people of London thought themselves so plague-free now, that they were past all admonitions. They seemed to depend upon it that the air was restored, and that the air was like a man that had had the smallpox,—not capable of being infected again. This revived that notion that the infection was all in the air; that there was no such thing as contagion from the sick people to the sound; and so strongly did this whimsey prevail among people, that they run altogether promiscuously, sick and well. Not the Mohammedans, who, prepossessed with the principle of predestination, value nothing of contagion, let it be in what it will, could be more obstinate than the people of London. They that were perfectly sound, and came out of the wholesome air, as we call it, into the city, made nothing of going into the same houses and chambers, nay, even into the same beds, with those that had the distemper upon them, and were not recovered.

Some, indeed, paid for their audacious boldness with the price of their lives. An infinite number fell sick, and the physicians had more work than ever, only with this difference, that more of their patients recovered, that is to say, they generally recovered; but certainly there were more people infected and fell sick now, when there did not die above a thousand or twelve hundred a week, than there was when there died five or six thousand a week, so entirely negligent were the people at that time in the great and dangerous case of health and infection, and so ill were they able to take or except of the advice of those who cautioned them for their good.

The people being thus returned, as it were, in general, it was very strange to find, that, in their inquiring after their friends, some whole families were so entirely swept away that there was no remembrance of them left. Neither was anybody to be found to possess or show any title to that little they had left; for in such cases what was to be found was generally embezzled and purloined, some gone one way, some another.

It was said such abandoned effects came to the King as the universal heir; upon which we are told, and I suppose it was in part true, that the King granted all such as deodands to the lord mayor and court of aldermen of London, to be applied to the use of the poor, of whom there were very many. For it is to be observed, that though the occasions of relief and the objects of distress were very many more in the time of the violence of the plague than now, after all was over, yet the distress of the poor was more now a great deal than it was then, because all the sluices of general charity were shut. People supposed the main occasion to be over, and so stopped their hands; whereas particular objects were still very moving, and the distress of those that were poor was very great indeed.

Though the health of the city was now very much restored, yet foreign trade did not begin to stir; neither would foreigners admit our ships into their ports for a great while. As for the Dutch, the misunderstandings between our court and them had broken out into a war the year before, so that our trade that way was wholly interrupted; but Spain and Portugal, Italy and Barbary, as also Hamburg, and all the ports in the Baltic,—these were all shy of us a great while, and would not restore trade with us for many months.

The distemper sweeping away such multitudes, as I have observed, many if not all of the outparishes were obliged to make new burying grounds, besides that I have mentioned in Bunhill Fields, some of which were continued, and remain in use to this day; but others were left off, and, which I confess I mention with some reflection, being converted into other uses, or built upon afterwards, the dead bodies were disturbed, abused, dug up again, some even before the flesh of them was perished from the bones, and removed like dung or rubbish to other places. Some of those which came within the reach of my observations are as follows:—

First, A piece of ground beyond Goswell Street, near Mountmill, being some of the remains of the old lines or fortifications of the city, where abundance were buried promiscuously from the parishes of Aldersgate, Clerkenwell, and even out of the city. This ground, as I take it, was since made a physic garden, and, after that, has been built upon.

Second, A piece of ground just over the Black Ditch, as it was then called, at the end of Holloway Lane, in Shoreditch Parish. It has been since made a yard for keeping hogs and for other ordinary uses, but is quite out of use as a burying ground.

Third, The upper end of Hand Alley, in Bishopsgate Street, which was then a green field, and was taken in particularly for Bishopsgate Parish, though many of the carts out of the city brought their dead thither also, particularly out of the parish of St. Allhallows-on-the-Wall. This place I cannot mention without much regret. It was, as I remember, about two or three years after the plague was ceased, that Sir Robert Clayton came to be possessed of the ground. It was reported, how true I know not, that it fell to the King for want of heirs (all those who had any right to it being carried off by the pestilence), and that Sir Robert Clayton obtained a grant of it from King Charles II. But however he came by it, certain it is the ground was let out to build on, or built upon by his order. The first house built upon it was a large fair house, still standing, which faces the street or way now called Hand Alley, which, though called an alley, is as wide as a street. The houses in the same row with that house northward are built on the very same ground where the poor people were buried; and the bodies, on opening the ground for the foundations, were dug up, some of them remaining so plain to be seen, that the women’s skulls were distinguished by their long hair, and of others the flesh was not quite perished; so that the people began to exclaim loudly against it, and some suggested that it might endanger a return of the contagion; after which the bones and bodies, as fast as they came at them, were carried to another part of the same ground, and thrown altogether into a deep pit, dug on purpose, which now is to be known in that it is not built on, but is a passage to another house at the upper end of Rose Alley, just against the door of a meetinghouse, which has been built there many years since; and the ground is palisadoed off from the rest of the passage in a little square. There lie the bones and remains of near two thousand bodies, carried by the dead carts to their grave in that one year.

Fourth, Besides this, there was a piece of ground in Moorfields, by the going into the street which is now called Old Bethlem, which was enlarged much, though not wholly taken in, on the same occasion.

N.B. The author of this journal lies buried in that very ground, being at his own desire, his sister having been buried there a few years before.

Fifth, Stepney Parish, extending itself from the east part of London to the north, even to the very edge of Shoreditch churchyard, had a piece of ground taken in to bury their dead, close to the said churchyard; and which, for that very reason, was left open, and is since, I suppose, taken into the same churchyard. And they had also two other burying places in Spittlefields,—one where since a chapel or tabernacle has been built for ease to this great parish, and another in Petticoat Lane.

There were no less than five other grounds made use of for the parish of Stepney at that time; one where now stands the parish church of St. Paul, Shadwell, and the other where now stands the parish church of St. John, at Wapping, both which had not the names of parishes at that time, but were belonging to Stepney Parish.

I could name many more; but these coming within my particular knowledge, the circumstance, I thought, made it of use to record them. From the whole, it may be observed that they were obliged in this time of distress to take in new burying grounds in most of the outparishes for laying the prodigious numbers of people which died in so short a space of time; but why care was not taken to keep those places separate from ordinary uses, that so the bodies might rest undisturbed, that I cannot answer for, and must confess I think it was wrong. Who were to blame, I know not.

I should have mentioned that the Quakers had at that time also a burying ground set apart to their use, and which they still make use of; and they had also a particular dead cart to fetch their dead from their houses. And the famous Solomon Eagle, who, as I mentioned before, had predicted the plague as a judgment, and run naked through the streets, telling the people that it was come upon them to punish them for their sins, had his own wife died the very next day of the plague, and was carried, one of the first, in the Quakers’ dead cart to their new burying ground.

I might have thronged this account with many more remarkable things which occurred in the time of the infection, and particularly what passed between the lord mayor and the court, which was then at Oxford, and what directions were from time to time received from the government for their conduct on this critical occasion; but really the court concerned themselves so little, and that little they did was of so small import, that I do not see it of much moment to mention any part of it here, except that of appointing a monthly fast in the city, and the sending the royal charity to the relief of the poor, both which I have mentioned before.

Great was the reproach thrown upon those physicians who left their patients during the sickness; and, now they came to town again, nobody cared to employ them. They were called deserters, and frequently bills were set up on their doors, and written, “Here is a doctor to be let!” So that several of those physicians were fain for a while to sit still and look about them, or at least remove their dwellings and set up in new places and among new acquaintance. The like was the case with the clergy, whom the people were indeed very abusive to, writing verses and scandalous reflections upon them; setting upon the church door, “Here is a pulpit to be let,” or sometimes “to be sold,” which was worse.

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