The plague, which was apparently also known as the Poor’s Plague, is said to have broken out in early 1665 – perhaps February – with the first areas to be affected dockside districts and the crowded slum of St Giles in the Fields before it moved into the City proper. There are claims that the outbreak’s origins occurred a couple of months earlier at a property in Drury Lane where contaminated bales of goods imported from Holland were opened by Flemish weavers.
However it came to be in London, it soon spread and by July was running rampant with many of the nobility, merchants, and tradesmen choosing to flee the city in the hope of escaping its reach. They included King Charles II and his family and court who moved to Hampton Court in early July and then to Salisbury at the start of August before, following some cases there, to Oxford in September.
Those who did come down with the disease – generally thought to have been bubonic plague, a disease of rats which is transmitted to humans via fleas – were confined to their homes with red crosses and the words ‘Lord, have mercy on us’ painted on the door while gatherings in public – such as for the theatre – were banned to prevent the disease’s spread.
Other measures to contain the disease included the imposition of a curfew and the killing of an estimated 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats, thought to be spreaders of the disease, on the orders of the mayor, Sir John Lawrence.
Bills of mortality recorded the number of deaths weekly – in the week of 19th to 26th September, the number peaked at 7,165 people before declining. By late in the year life in the capital had started returning to normal.
While the bodies were buried in mass graves, by September the growing numbers of dead meant many were simply left to rot where they fell.
The estimated numbers of those who died varies somewhat depending on the source but according to the Museum of London’s website, the Great Plague of 1665 is estimated to have killed 100,000 people – about a fifth of the population – within just seven months of its outbreak.
While the sheer number of dead is unprecedented, other plagues were proportionally deadlier, in particular the coming of the Black Death in 1348 which killed about half of all Londoners over an 18 month period (equating to an estimated 40,000 people).
The Great Plague was, thankfully, the last major plague to affect London. Among those who had survived was the diarist Samuel Pepys whose entries provide a valuable source of information on how the plague affected Londoners (pictured above is detail from the gateway into the church of St Olave Hart Street – Pepys’ parish church at the time of the plague – where a number of victims of the Great Plague were buried).