Sunday 22 March 2020

Coronavirus: a lesson from history

‘The plague,’ wrote Samuel Pepys, ‘made us as cruel as dogs one to another.’ The famous diarist lived through the Great Plague of 1665 which killed perhaps 100,000 in London, a fifth of the population. It also raged outside the capital. More than a sixth of the inhabitants of Cambridge are said to have died, a quarter in Norwich, between a quarter and a third in Dover, a third in Newark and some claimed it was one person in two in Southampton.

I have just come back to the UK from a short time abroad, and Pepys’ words leapt into my mind as I traipsed around a series of supermarkets looking at empty shelves. No pasta, no rice, no canned foods, no chicken, precious little fruit and veg. Even items like lentils, buckwheat and quinoa, which do not normally appear to be in great demand, had been cleaned out.

Back in 1665, the elite often got out of the cities. In Southampton, the deputy mayor and 16 other local officials were fined for deserting their posts. Infected people and their families were locked up in their houses. The authorities were supposed to provide food for them, but the money ran out, and as those being incarcerated began resisting, sometimes violently, the practice had to be abandoned.

Carts collected corpses with cries of ‘bring out your dead’ and as coffins and even shrouds got scarce, bodies were flung naked into plague pits. If you want to know more about the Great Plague, see my books London’s Disasters and A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press).

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