The Ghost of Days Past – What have we learnt from Past Pandemics (Part I: The Plague)

During Lockdown our Assistant Librarian, Sandi, has been looking into past pandemics…

The Plague

There were a number of waves of the Plague that periodically swept as epidemics but the most fatal pandemics were the Black Death 1346-53 and the Great Plague 1665-66 the last major outbreak in England.

There were three type of plague Bubonic, Pneumonic and Septicaemic.

Bubonic Plague had Buboes or swellings of the lymph nodes in the groin, arm pits and neck which turned black gave the name of the Black death. It was spread from a rat flea bite that carried the Yersinia Pestis bacteria.

Pneumonic, was more contagious as it was spread by coughing and sneezing.

Septicaemic, was where the bacteria entered the blood stream and there was little hope of survival.

Social Isolation of the time saw those that could, fled from London, taking the Plague with them, to their “second homes”. The King and Court left for Oxford, leaving the poor who had no choice but to stay.

The Great Plague Etchings by John Dunstall

50 years after the Great Plague, Daniel Defoe wrote “A Journal of the Plague Year” (1665-66). He wrote “the hurry continued some weeks …All of May and June, …because it was rumoured that an order of Government was to be issued out to place turnpikes and barriers on the road to prevent travelling, and that the towns on the road would not suffer people from London to pass for fear of bringing the infection along with them.”

Then Scotland closed its border with England now the world shuts down air travel, restricts overseas arrivals and isolates Cruise ships.

Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary in August 1665 that the streets were deserted and that pedestrians he met “were like people that had taken leave of the world”

Now we see on television deserted towns and cities all over the world as the virus turns the world into a Ghost Town.

Infected persons were taken to Pest Houses or Plague Hospitals. There were 5 in London holding 600 patients. Now we build huge Corona virus hospitals to house 4,000 patients, such as the Nightingale in London, in exhibition and conference centres in cities.

It was believed that the plague was transmitted by a miasma or foul air and could be cleansed by smoke and heat. To clean impurities of the blood patients were bled with leeches.

Those that did move about sniffed a sponge soaked in vinegar giving rise to the children’s rhyme “Ring a ring of roses, a pocket full of posies”.

Houses where an infected person had been were boarded up for 40 days, a red cross and “Lord have Mercy on us” painted on the door and a watchman posted at the door to see that no-one left. Daniel Defoe wrote that people had a “terror of being imprisoned”.

The dead were collected at night with watchmen patrolling the streets with carts crying “Bring out your Dead” to take the bodies to huge Plague pits, covering the bodies with lime.

Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year [914.21/LND/DEF]

In London the Company of Parish Clerks printed “bills of mortality” weekly tallies of burials. As until recently with Corona virus the number of deaths only counting hospital deaths, this seemed under counted. Pepys wrote “6978 deaths in one week” “more likely 10,000.” The urban poor were not counted.

Eyam village in the Peak District on one of the country’s trade routes, is renowned for its courageous decision to quarantine themselves for six months during the plague outbreak of 1665-66. The disease had arrived from London via fleas trapped in cloth delivered to the village tailor, as it spread in the village,  the decision was made to prevent the disease from transmitting to the nearby towns of Bakewell, Manchester and Sheffield.

With no online food deliveries Eyam arranged for food to be left at the parish boundary in exchange for vinegar-soaked money.

Without video calls they stayed in touch at a distance in a natural amphitheatre outside the village. Roland Torre who lived in the next village was betrothed to Emmott Sydall. Every day they would come to see each other on opposite sides of the bowl. One day she did not arrive because she had died of the plague.

More than 260 perished during the outbreak from a village population of about 700.

Elizabeth Hancock lost her husband and six children to the plague over eight days, and as there was no one else to do it, was forced to dig their graves.

The heroism of Eyam villagers was a success, the disease was prevented from spreading to the nearby towns.

There are parallels in Eyam village today under Lock-down and Self Isolation from Corona Virus.

The closure of public venues, as at present, goes back as far as the late 1500 to early 1600 when Theatres were closed due to the Plague, with companies of actors and playwrights, like William Shakespeare, out of work. It was during this time than he wrote his poetry for publication.

The Great Plague 1665-66 in London claimed 75,000 – 100,000 lives, between 15% to 20% of the London population. The Black Death 1346-53 killed one third to half the population of Europe.

There is an interesting comparison of the effects of the Plague on the population between three Towns in Devon over 100 years.

In Barnstaple apart from a few spikes, Baptisms are a few more, but roughly mirror the numbers of Burials. In the much larger town of Plymouth the Burial rate highly exceeds the number of Baptisms and future demographic growth was dependent on migrants coming in from outside.

What brought about the end of the Great Plague of 1665-66 and why was it the last in Britain?

After 1666 greater quarantine methods for ships coming into the country was brought in where they were placed in quarantine to see if they developed any new cases and the crew and cargo were only released when the outbreak was over.

Before the Plague London citizens were in the habit of disposing rubbish and sewage by throwing it out onto the streets. During the outbreak rubbish had be cleared giving less opportunity for rats to find food.

The colder weather of the Autumn and very cold Winter helped to kill off the fleas. The Thames regularly froze in winter at this period of time.

The Black rat may have started to develop an immunity to the virus so fewer died so that the fleas did not need to transfer to a human host. Humans may have also developed greater immunity. The Great Fire of London of 1666 has been cited as the reason but most of the plague outbreak took place in the outskirts of the city and the die down occurred in other towns without the fire. The rebuilding of the city was in stone and brick instead of wood, which would have helped, and was designed with more open spaces and less overcrowding.

…Sandi Vass, Assistant Librarian

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