The plague had been around in England for centuries though never had it hit London so hard than during the reign of the House of Stuart, 1665 to be precise. The summer of 1665 was an extremely hot one in England and while the population of London was increasing at a dramatic rate, people were living in squalor and the only way to get rid of rubbish was to throw it out on to the streets, both household waste and human waste.
As a result of the refuse problem, London was in a terrible state and was the perfect breeding place for rats. Although some believe that the plague was caused by cats and dogs, it was in fact caused by disease carrying fleas carried on the bodies of rats. The first victims of the plague were found in the poorer districts of the capital though this was no surprise what with the cramped living conditions and the fact that most of the poor lived in the slum areas of London.
Once the disease had taken hold, it didn’t take long for it to spread extremely rapidly and for those who could, the rich, left London for the slightly safer surroundings of the countryside. For those in the slums, they weren’t so lucky and weren’t allowed to leave London for fear of the disease spreading even further. Authorities were so fearful of this that they paid militiamen to guard the boundaries of the parish they lived in to ensure that nobody left unless they had a certificate from their parish leader.
As you would expect it was the poor of London who took the worst hit during the Great Plague and local authorities took drastic action to ensure that the disease did not spread any further. When any one member of a family was diagnosed with the plague, they were locked in their house for forty days and nights while a red cross was painted on their door to warn others of their plight and more importantly not to come in to contact with the infected person.
The authorities also employed ‘Searchers’, who were paid to hunt out dead bodies and possible victims of the plague who had not yet been found. It was not uncommon in London to hear a searcher shout “bring out your dead” after which collected bodies were put on to a cart and taken to a mass burial site.
By September 1665, the Great Plague was at its peak, with the heat of summer still blazing down on London, for every parish the plague was the biggest weekly killer, with no other disease coming close.
By Winter 1665, the spreading of the disease was halted as the weather took its toll on the rats and fleas. Though the weather had halted the disease, it was the Great Fire of London the following year that really brought an end to the tragic plague. The fire perished the poor areas of London where the rats had prospered and the disease was at its worst. When London was rebuilt, it was a more spacious and open city and a city in which the plague wouldn’t affect so badly ever again.
The Great Fire of London was the second disaster to hit London in a matter of two years, that however is another story!