Saturday, 25 April 2020

Coronavirus watch: Lockdown - 1665-style

During the Great Plague of 1665, which killed perhaps one person in five in London, lockdowns were a bit more brutal. People found to be infected were locked up in their houses with their families.

In its early stages, the government also closed ale houses and brought in some restrictions on street-vendors. But the death toll grew alarmingly, even though there were suspicions that many plague deaths were being attributed to other causes.

The more prosperous folk were relieved that the disease seemed to be hitting only the poorest districts, and in May, London theatres were still packed. But as more and more people died, in June, warders were put around the worst-hit area to try to stop the inhabitants getting out. Still the disease spread, and the King and court upped sticks.

By the end of June, the theatres were closed, and the streets were jammed with coaches as most of the aristocracy fled, though the Lord Mayor stayed, conducting business from inside a glass case.

In July, the disease really took hold, with more than 5,500 deaths, and the diarist Samuel Pepys (pictured) set his affairs in order, mindful that ‘a man cannot depend on living two days’. August and September were the worst months. London was a ghost town, with only ‘poor wretches’ on the street, and Pepys noting that he could walk the length of usually-bustling Lombard Street, and see only 20 people.

By September, most of the doctors had gone, the Royal College of Physicians was deserted, and there was not a lot of sympathy when it had its valuable treasures stolen. The authorities were supposed to provide food for those shut up in their houses, but by now the money had run out, victims were beginning to resist, and the practice had to be abandoned.

The usual sounds of one of the world’s great cities had been replaced by the endless tolling of bells and the rumbling of the carts collecting corpses to the cry of ‘bring out your dead!’ Grass grew in the streets, and Pepys lamented ‘how empty and melancholy’ they were, while a puritan preacher said that every day he heard of the death of at least one person he knew.

For more, see London’s Disasters (The History Press).

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