The Lord’s Mayor’s Show is coming up soon (10th November) so we thought it a good time to take a quick look at the life of one of the city’s most memorable Lord Mayors – Sir John Lawrence, who served in the office in 1664-65.

Sir John, a merchant and member of the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers (and Master of the company in 1677), is remembered for the role he played during the Great Plague of 1665 which preceded the Great Fire of London the following year.

Following the arrival of the plaque in London, those with the means took to their heels and left the city for safer climes. But Sir John assured the public that he and the City officers would remain at their posts to keep law and order among the frightened populace.

He oversaw the issuing of a series of plague-related orders designed to stem the spread of disease and appointed people to oversee and attend to the needs of households affected by the disease and search out the bodies to be taken away as well as doctors to tend to the sick and help prevent infection.

His efforts in ensuring the food supply remained steady have been particularly praised as has his opening of his own home in St Helen’s Bishopsgate to those servants who were discharged when the households in which they worked fled the city.

His tenure as mayor is often favourably contrasted with that of his successor, Sir Thomas Bludworth but Sir John also had numerous other positions during his lifetime, including as president of St Thomas’ Hospital, a committee member of the East India Company and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Sir John was married and had two children. He died on 26th January, 1692, and was buried at the Church of St Helen’s Bishopsgate.

He is remembered on a plaque at Bunhill Fields for being mayor when, at the City’s expense, the burial ground was enclosed with a wall.

PICTURE: Part of the inscription at the gates of Bunhill Fields commemorating Sir John’s role in enclosing the burial ground. (Edwardx; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0).

 

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St-Olave-Hart-StreetIt’s 350 years ago this year that the Great Plague broke out in London in 1665, bringing death on an unprecedented scale to the city.

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).

A navy administrator and an MP who lived in London for much for the 17th century, it is for his remarkable diary – filled with reflections on great events and the intimate goings on of daily life – that Samuel Pepys is renowned around the world.

Born the son of a tailor in Salisbury Court, Fleet Street (the site is now marked with a plaque), on 23rd February, 1633, Pepys (pronounced ‘peeps’) attended St Paul’s School before moving on to Cambridge University. After graduation, he entered the household of one of his father’s cousins, Sir Edward Montagu, as a secretary around 1655 – the same year he married Elisabeth de St Michel.

Under the patronage of Sir Edward – after he became the Earl of Sandwich – Pepys was appointed Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board – a task which saw him playing a key role in shaping the English fleet which fought (unsuccessfully) in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667).

In 1673, he became Secretary to the Admiralty and the same year was elected an MP for Castle Rising in Norfolk (he later became an MP for Harwich). Pepys also served as president of the Royal Society from 1684-1686, and even visited Tangier where he was involved in the evacuation of the short-lived English colony there. He was imprisoned twice in later years – at least once on suspicion of supporting the Jacobites – but the charges were dropped and he retired at the age of 57 in 1690.

In 1701 he moved out to a house in Clapham and lived there until his death on 26th May, 1703 (his wife Elisabeth had died many years earlier in 1669 and they’d had no children). His extensive library – including his six volume diary – were bequeathed to Magdalene College at Cambridge.

Despite an illustrious public career, it is his diary for which Pepys is most celebrated. Covering the years from 1660 to 1669 (he only stopped writing for fear he would go blind), it records his reactions to such monumental events as Charles II’s coronation (he was present as a youth at the beheading of Charles I), the Great Plague of London in 1665 and the Great Fire of London the following year as well as intimate details from his personal life including how he spent his leisure time, his various illnesses and his sexual liaisons. Written originally in a form of shorthand, it was first published in 1825 – and only fully published in 1976 – and has since gone on to enthral and entertain millions around the world.

Among places in London which still hold a Pepys connection are St Bride’s Church (he was baptised there), All Hallows by the Tower (it was in the tower from which Pepys watched the Great Fire), St Olave’s on Seething Lane (pictured above) where Pepys and his wife are buried (he was living in Seething Lane when he started the diary and St Olave’s served as his parish church between 1660 and 1674). Further down Seething Lane, there is a bust of Pepys in the gardens which now cover the Navy Office where Pepys once lived and worked.

There is also an exhibition on Pepy’s in Prince Henry’s Room at 17 Fleet Street (the building dates from around 1610 and was a pub when Pepys was alive), although it is currently closed.  An online version of Pepys’ diary can be found at the website Pepys’ Diary. For more on Pepys’ life, we do recommend Claire Tomalin’s best-selling biography Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self.