History of the Plague in England

§ 18

Daniel Defoe

IT WAS NOT the least of our misfortunes, that with our infection, when it ceased, there did not cease the spirit of strife and contention, slander and reproach, which was really the great troubler of the nation’s peace before. It was said to be the remains of the old animosities which had so lately involved us all in blood and disorder; but as the late act of indemnity had lain asleep the quarrel itself, so the government had recommended family and personal peace, upon all occasions, to the whole nation.

But it could not be obtained; and particularly after the ceasing of the plague in London, when any one had seen the condition which the people had been in, and how they caressed one another at that time, promised to have more charity for the future, and to raise no more reproaches,—I say, any one that had seen them then would have thought they would have come together with another spirit at last. But, I say, it could not be obtained. The quarrel remained, the Church and the Presbyterians were incompatible. As soon as the plague was removed, the dissenting ousted ministers who had supplied the pulpits which were deserted by the incumbents, retired. They could expect no other but that they should immediately fall upon them and harass them with their penal laws; accept their preaching while they were sick, and persecute them as soon as they were recovered again. This even we that were of the Church thought was hard, and could by no means approve of it.

But it was the government, and we could say nothing to hinder it. We could only say it was not our doing, and we could not answer for it.

On the other hand, the dissenters reproaching those ministers of the Church with going away, and deserting their charge, abandoning the people in their danger, and when they had most need of comfort, and the like,—this we could by no means approve; for all men have not the same faith and the same courage, and the Scripture commands us to judge the most favorably, and according to charity.

A plague is a formidable enemy, and is armed with terrors that every man is not sufficiently fortified to resist, or prepared to stand the shock against. It is very certain that a great many of the clergy who were in circumstances to do it withdrew, and fled for the safety of their lives; but it is true, also, that a great many of them staid, and many of them fell in the calamity, and in the discharge of their duty.

It is true, some of the dissenting turned-out ministers staid, and their courage is to be commended and highly valued; but these were not abundance. It cannot be said that they all staid, and that none retired into the country, any more than it can be said of the Church clergy that they all went away. Neither did all those that went away go without substituting curates and others in their places, to do the offices needful, and to visit the sick as far as it was practicable. So that, upon the whole, an allowance of charity might have been made on both sides, and we should have considered that such a time as this of 1665 is not to be paralleled in history, and that it is not the stoutest courage that will always support men in such cases. I had not said this, but had rather chosen to record the courage and religious zeal of those of both sides who did hazard themselves for the service of the poor people in their distress, without remembering that any failed in their duty on either side; but the want of temper among us has made the contrary to this necessary: some that staid, not only boasting too much of themselves, but reviling those that fled, branding them with cowardice, deserting their flocks, and acting the part of the hireling, and the like. I recommend it to the charity of all good people to look back and reflect duly upon the terrors of the time; and whoever does so will see that it is not an ordinary strength that could support it. It was not like appearing in the head of an army, or charging a body of horse in the field; but it was charging death itself on his pale horse. To stay was indeed to die; and it could be esteemed nothing less, especially as things appeared at the latter end of August and the beginning of September, and as there was reason to expect them at that time; for no man expected, and I dare say believed, that the distemper would take so sudden a turn as it did, and fall immediately two thousand in a week, when there was such a prodigious number of people sick at that time as it was known there was; and then it was that many shifted away that had staid most of the time before.

Besides, if God gave strength to some more than to others, was it to boast of their ability to abide the stroke, and upbraid those that had not the same gift and support, or ought they not rather to have been humble and thankful if they were rendered more useful than their brethren?

I think it ought to be recorded to the honor of such men, as well clergy as physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, magistrates, and officers of every kind, as also all useful people, who ventured their lives in discharge of their duty, as most certainly all such as staid did to the last degree; and several of these kinds did not only venture, but lost their lives on that sad occasion.

I was once making a list of all such (I mean of all those professions and employments who thus died, as I call it, in the way of their duty), but it was impossible for a private man to come at a certainty in the particulars. I only remember that there died sixteen clergymen, two aldermen, five physicians, thirteen surgeons, within the city and liberties, before the beginning of September. But this being, as I said before, the crisis and extremity of the infection, it can be no complete list. As to inferior people, I think there died six and forty constables and headboroughs in the two parishes of Stepney and Whitechapel; but I could not carry my list on, for when the violent rage of the distemper, in September, came upon us, it drove us out of all measure. Men did then no more die by tale and by number: they might put out a weekly bill, and call them seven or eight thousand, or what they pleased. It is certain they died by heaps, and were buried by heaps; that is to say, without account. And if I might believe some people who were more abroad and more conversant with those things than I (though I was public enough for one that had no more business to do than I had),—I say, if we may believe them, there was not many less buried those first three weeks in September than twenty thousand per week. However the others aver the truth of it, yet I rather choose to keep to the public account. Seven or eight thousand per week is enough to make good all that I have said of the terror of those times; and it is much to the satisfaction of me that write, as well as those that read, to be able to say that everything is set down with moderation, and rather within compass than beyond it.

Upon all these accounts, I say, I could wish, when we were recovered, our conduct had been more distinguished for charity and kindness, in remembrance of the past calamity, and not so much in valuing ourselves upon our boldness in staying; as if all men were cowards that fly from the hand of God, or that those who stay do not sometimes owe their courage to their ignorance, and despising the hand of their Maker, which is a criminal kind of desperation, and not a true courage.

I cannot but leave it upon record, that the civil officers, such as constables, headboroughs, lord mayor’s and sheriff’s men, also parish officers, whose business it was to take charge of the poor, did their duties, in general, with as much courage as any, and perhaps with more; because their work was attended with more hazards, and lay more among the poor, who were more subject to be infected, and in the most pitiful plight when they were taken with the infection. But then it must be added, too, that a great number of them died; indeed, it was scarcely possible it should be otherwise.

I have not said one word here about the physic or preparations that were ordinarily made use of on this terrible occasion (I mean we that frequently went abroad up and down the streets, as I did). Much of this was talked of in the books and bills of our quack doctors, of whom I have said enough already. It may, however, be added, that the College of Physicians were daily publishing several preparations, which they had considered of in the process of their practice; and which, being to be had in print, I avoid repeating them for that reason.

One thing I could not help observing,—what befell one of the quacks, who published that he had a most excellent preservative against the plague, which whoever kept about them should never be infected, or liable to infection. This man, who, we may reasonably suppose, did not go abroad without some of this excellent preservative in his pocket, yet was taken by the distemper, and carried off in two or three days.

I am not of the number of the physic haters or physic despisers (on the contrary, I have often mentioned the regard I had to the dictates of my particular friend Dr. Heath); but yet I must acknowledge I made use of little or nothing, except, as I have observed, to keep a preparation of strong scent, to have ready in case I met with anything of offensive smells, or went too near any burying place or dead body.

Neither did I do, what I know some did, keep the spirits high and hot with cordials and wine, and such things, and which, as I observed, one learned physician used himself so much to, as that he could not leave them off when the infection was quite gone, and so became a sot for all his life after.

I remember my friend the doctor used to say that there was a certain set of drugs and preparations which were all certainly good and useful in the case of an infection, out of which or with which physicians might make an infinite variety of medicines, as the ringers of bells make several hundred different rounds of music by the changing and order of sound but in six bells; and that all these preparations shall be really very good. “Therefore,” said he, “I do not wonder that so vast a throng of medicines is offered in the present calamity, and almost every physician prescribes or prepares a different thing, as his judgment or experience guides him; but,” says my friend, “let all the prescriptions of all the physicians in London be examined, and it will be found that they are all compounded of the same things, with such variations only as the particular fancy of the doctor leads him to; so that,” says he, “every man, judging a little of his own constitution and manner of his living, and circumstances of his being infected, may direct his own medicines out of the ordinary drugs and preparations. Only that,” says he, “some recommend one thing as most sovereign, and some another. Some,” says he, “think that Pill. Ruff., which is called itself the antipestilential pill, is the best preparation that can be made; others think that Venice treacle is sufficient of itself to resist the contagion; and I,” says he, “think as both these think, viz., that the first is good to take beforehand to prevent it, and the last, if touched, to expel it.” According to this opinion, I several times took Venice treacle, and a sound sweat upon it, and thought myself as well fortified against the infection as any one could be fortified by the power of physic.

As for quackery and mountebank, of which the town was so full, I listened to none of them, and observed often since, with some wonder, that for two years after the plague I scarcely ever heard one of them about the town. Some fancied they were all swept away in the infection to a man, and were for calling it a particular mark of God’s vengeance upon them for leading the poor people into the pit of destruction merely for the lucre of a little money they got by them; but I cannot go that length, neither. That abundance of them died is certain (many of them came within the reach of my own knowledge); but that all of them were swept off, I much question. I believe, rather, they fled into the country, and tried their practices upon the people there, who were in apprehension of the infection before it came among them.

This, however, is certain, not a man of them appeared for a great while in or about London. There were indeed several doctors who published bills recommending their several physical preparations for cleansing the body, as they call it, after the plague, and needful, as they said, for such people to take who had been visited and had been cured; whereas, I must own, I believe that it was the opinion of the most eminent physicians of that time, that the plague was itself a sufficient purge, and that those who escaped the infection needed no physic to cleanse their bodies of any other things (the running sores, the tumors, etc., which were broken and kept open by the direction of the physicians, having sufficiently cleansed them); and that all other distempers, and causes of distempers, were effectually carried off that way. And as the physicians gave this as their opinion wherever they came, the quacks got little business.

There were indeed several little hurries which happened after the decrease of the plague, and which, whether they were contrived to fright and disorder the people, as some imagined, I cannot say; but sometimes we were told the plague would return by such a time; and the famous Solomon Eagle, the naked Quaker I have mentioned, prophesied evil tidings every day, and several others, telling us that London had not been sufficiently scourged, and the sorer and severer strokes were yet behind. Had they stopped there, or had they descended to particulars, and told us that the city should be the next year destroyed by fire, then, indeed, when we had seen it come to pass, we should not have been to blame to have paid more than common respect to their prophetic spirits (at least, we should have wondered at them, and have been more serious in our inquiries after the meaning of it, and whence they had the foreknowledge); but as they generally told us of a relapse into the plague, we have had no concern since that about them. Yet by those frequent clamors we were all kept with some kind of apprehensions constantly upon us; and if any died suddenly, or if the spotted fevers at any time increased, we were presently alarmed; much more if the number of the plague increased, for to the end of the year there were always between two and three hundred of the plague. On any of these occasions, I say, we were alarmed anew.

Those who remember the city of London before the fire must remember that there was then no such place as that we now call Newgate Market; but in the middle of the street, which is now called Blow Bladder Street, and which had its name from the butchers, who used to kill and dress their sheep there (and who, it seems, had a custom to blow up their meat with pipes, to make it look thicker and fatter than it was, and were punished there for it by the lord mayor),—I say, from the end of the street towards Newgate there stood two long rows of shambles for the selling meat.

It was in those shambles that two persons falling down dead as they were buying meat, gave rise to a rumor that the meat was all infected; which though it might affright the people, and spoiled the market for two or three days, yet it appeared plainly afterwards that there was nothing of truth in the suggestion: but nobody can account for the possession of fear when it takes hold of the mind. However, it pleased God, by the continuing of the winter weather, so to restore the health of the city, that by February following we reckoned the distemper quite ceased, and then we were not easily frighted again.

There was still a question among the learned, and at first perplexed the people a little; and that was, in what manner to purge the houses and goods where the plague had been, and how to render them habitable again which had been left empty during the time of the plague. Abundance of perfumes and preparations were prescribed by physicians, some of one kind, some of another, in which the people who listened to them put themselves to a great, and indeed in my opinion to an unnecessary, expense; and the poorer people, who only set open their windows night and day, burnt brimstone, pitch, and gunpowder, and such things, in their rooms, did as well as the best; nay, the eager people who, as I said above, came home in haste and at all hazards, found little or no inconvenience in their houses, nor in their goods, and did little or nothing to them.

However, in general, prudent, cautious people did enter into some measures for airing and sweetening their houses, and burnt perfumes, incense, benjamin, resin, and sulphur in their rooms, close shut up, and then let the air carry it all out with a blast of gunpowder; others caused large fires to be made all day and all night for several days and nights. By the same token that two or three were pleased to set their houses on fire, and so effectually sweetened them by burning them down to the ground (as particularly one at Ratcliff, one in Holborn, and one at Westminster, besides two or three that were set on fire; but the fire was happily got out again before it went far enough to burn down the houses); and one citizen’s servant, I think it was in Thames Street, carried so much gunpowder into his master’s house, for clearing it of the infection, and managed it so foolishly, that he blew up part of the roof of the house. But the time was not fully come that the city was to be purged with fire, nor was it far off; for within nine months more I saw it all lying in ashes, when, as some of our quaking philosophers pretend, the seeds of the plague were entirely destroyed, and not before,—a notion too ridiculous to speak of here, since, had the seeds of the plague remained in the houses, not to be destroyed but by fire, how has it been that they have not since broken out, seeing all those buildings in the suburbs and liberties, all in the great parishes of Stepney, Whitechapel, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Shoreditch, Cripplegate, and St. Giles’s, where the fire never came, and where the plague raced with the greatest violence, remain still in the same condition they were in before?

But to leave these things just as I found them, it was certain that those people who were more than ordinarily cautious of their health did take particular directions for what they called seasoning of their houses; and abundance of costly things were consumed on that account, which I cannot but say not only seasoned those houses as they desired, but filled the air with very grateful and wholesome smells, which others had the share of the benefit of, as well as those who were at the expenses of them.

Though the poor came to town very precipitantly, as I have said, yet, I must say, the rich made no such haste. The men of business, indeed, came up, but many of them did not bring their families to town till the spring came on, and that they saw reason to depend upon it that the plague would not return.

The court, indeed, came up soon after Christmas; but the nobility and gentry, except such as depended upon and had employment under the administration, did not come so soon.

I should have taken notice here, that notwithstanding the violence of the plague in London and other places, yet it was very observable that it was never on board the fleet; and yet for some time there was a strange press in the river, and even in the streets, for seamen to man the fleet. But it was in the beginning of the year, when the plague was scarce begun, and not at all come down to that part of the city where they usually press for seamen; and though a war with the Dutch was not at all grateful to the people at that time, and the seamen went with a kind of reluctancy into the service, and many complained of being dragged into it by force, yet it proved, in the event, a happy violence to several of them, who had probably perished in the general calamity, and who, after the summer service was over, though they had cause to lament the desolation of their families (who, when they came back, were many of them in their graves), yet they had room to be thankful that they were carried out of the reach of it, though so much against their wills. We, indeed, had a hot war with the Dutch that year, and one very great engagement at sea, in which the Dutch were worsted; but we lost a great many men and some ships. But, as I observed, the plague was not in the fleet; and when they came to lay up the ships in the river, the violent part of it began to abate.

I would be glad if I could close the account of this melancholy year with some particular examples historically, I mean of the thankfulness to God, our Preserver, for our being delivered from this dreadful calamity. Certainly the circumstances of the deliverance, as well as the terrible enemy we were delivered from, called upon the whole nation for it. The circumstances of the deliverance were indeed very remarkable, as I have in part mentioned already; and particularly the dreadful condition which we were all in, when we were, to the surprise of the whole town, made joyful with the hope of a stop to the infection.

Nothing but the immediate finger of God, nothing but omnipotent power, could have done it. The contagion despised all medicine, death raged in every corner; and, had it gone on as it did then, a few weeks more would have cleared the town of all and everything that had a soul. Men everywhere began to despair; every heart failed them for fear; people were made desperate through the anguish of their souls; and the terrors of death sat in the very faces and countenances of the people.

In that very moment, when we might very well say, “Vain was the help of man,”—I say, in that very moment it pleased God, with a most agreeable surprise, to cause the fury of it to abate, even of itself; and the malignity declining, as I have said, though infinite numbers were sick, yet fewer died; and the very first week’s bill decreased 1,843, a vast number indeed.

It is impossible to express the change that appeared in the very countenances of the people that Thursday morning when the weekly bill came out. It might have been perceived in their countenances that a secret surprise and smile of joy sat on everybody’s face. They shook one another by the hands in the streets, who would hardly go on the same side of the way with one another before. Where the streets were not too broad, they would open their windows and call from one house to another, and asked how they did, and if they had heard the good news that the plague was abated. Some would return, when they said good news, and ask, “What good news?” And when they answered that the plague was abated, and the bills decreased almost two thousand, they would cry out, “God be praised!” and would weep aloud for joy, telling them they had heard nothing of it; and such was the joy of the people, that it was, as it were, life to them from the grave. I could almost set down as many extravagant things done in the excess of their joy as of their grief; but that would be to lessen the value of it.

I must confess myself to have been very much dejected just before this happened; for the prodigious numbers that were taken sick the week or two before, besides those that died, was such, and the lamentations were so great everywhere, that a man must have seemed to have acted even against his reason if he had so much as expected to escape; and as there was hardly a house but mine in all my neighborhood but what was infected, so, had it gone on, it would not have been long that there would have been any more neighbors to be infected. Indeed, it is hardly credible what dreadful havoc the last three weeks had made: for, if I might believe the person whose calculations I always found very well grounded, there were not less than thirty thousand people dead, and near one hundred thousand fallen sick, in the three weeks I speak of; for the number that sickened was surprising, indeed it was astonishing, and those whose courage upheld them all the time before, sunk under it now.

In the middle of their distress, when the condition of the city of London was so truly calamitous, just then it pleased God, as it were, by his immediate hand, to disarm this enemy: the poison was taken out of the sting. It was wonderful. Even the physicians themselves were surprised at it. Wherever they visited, they found their patients better,—either they had sweated kindly, or the tumors were broke, or the carbuncles went down and the inflammations round them changed color, or the fever was gone, or the violent headache was assuaged, or some good symptom was in the case,—so that in a few days everybody was recovering. Whole families that were infected and down, that had ministers praying with them, and expected death every hour, were revived and healed, and none died at all out of them.

Nor was this by any new medicine found out, or new method of cure discovered, or by any experience in the operation which the physicians or surgeons attained to; but it was evidently from the secret invisible hand of Him that had at first sent this disease as a judgment upon us. And let the atheistic part of mankind call my saying what they please, it is no enthusiasm: it was acknowledged at that time by all mankind. The disease was enervated, and its malignity spent; and let it proceed from whencesoever it will, let the philosophers search for reasons in nature to account for it by, and labor as much as they will to lessen the debt they owe to their Maker, those physicians who had the least share of religion in them were obliged to acknowledge that it was all supernatural, that it was extraordinary, and that no account could be given of it.

If I should say that this is a visible summons to us all to thankfulness, especially we that were under the terror of its increase, perhaps it may be thought by some, after the sense of the thing was over, an officious canting of religious things, preaching a sermon instead of writing a history, making myself a teacher instead of giving my observations of things (and this restrains me very much from going on here, as I might otherwise do); but if ten lepers were healed, and but one returned to give thanks, I desire to be as that one, and to be thankful for myself.

Nor will I deny but there were abundance of people who, to all appearance, were very thankful at that time: for their mouths were stopped, even the mouths of those whose hearts were not extraordinarily long affected with it; but the impression was so strong at that time, that it could not be resisted, no, not by the worst of the people.

It was a common thing to meet people in the street that were strangers, and that we knew nothing at all of, expressing their surprise. Going one day through Aldgate, and a pretty many people being passing and repassing, there comes a man out of the end of the Minories; and, looking a little up the street and down, he throws his hands abroad: “Lord, what an alteration is here! Why, last week I came along here, and hardly anybody was to be seen.” Another man (I heard him) adds to his words, “’Tis all wonderful; ’tis all a dream.”—“Blessed be God!” says a third man; “and let us give thanks to him, for ’tis all his own doing.” Human help and human skill were at an end. These were all strangers to one another, but such salutations as these were frequent in the street every day; and, in spite of a loose behavior, the very common people went along the streets, giving God thanks for their deliverance.

It was now, as I said before, the people had cast off all apprehensions, and that too fast. Indeed, we were no more afraid now to pass by a man with a white cap upon his head, or with a cloth wrapped round his neck, or with his leg limping, occasioned by the sores in his groin,—all which were frightful to the last degree but the week before. But now the street was full of them, and these poor recovering creatures, give them their due, appeared very sensible of their unexpected deliverance, and I should wrong them very much if I should not acknowledge that I believe many of them were really thankful; but I must own that for the generality of the people it might too justly be said of them, as was said of the children of Israel after their being delivered from the host of Pharaoh, when they passed the Red Sea, and looked back and saw the Egyptians overwhelmed in the water, viz., “that they sang his praise, but they soon forgot his works.”

I can go no further here. I should be counted censorious, and perhaps unjust, if I should enter into the unpleasing work of reflecting, whatever cause there was for it, upon the unthankfulness and return of all manner of wickedness among us, which I was so much an eyewitness of myself. I shall conclude the account of this calamitous year, therefore, with a coarse but a sincere stanza of my own, which I placed at the end of my ordinary memorandums the same year they were written:—

A dreadful plague in London was,
    In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
    Away, yet I alive.

History of the Plague in England - Contents

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