December 29, 2016
It’s been another busy year and we hope you’ve enjoyed our coverage of London’s history and culture in 2016. But we’ve now reached the end and that means it’s time to review Exploring London’s 10 most popular new posts this year. To kick if off, we’re looking at numbers 10 through to six (we’ll look at numbers five to one tomorrow). So, without further ado…
October 17, 2016
Of course, the Great Fire of London in 1666 is only one of numerous fires which have occurred in London (although it was no doubt the greatest in terms of destruction). But among others was a fire in 1212 which has been described as London’s worst in terms of the death toll which some have put as high as 3,000 (although it’s generally believed it’s unlikely to have been that high).
The fire, which only came some 77 years after another great conflagration destroyed a stretch of the city reaching from Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral in 1135, began in Southwark on 10th July (hence it’s also known as the Great Fire of Southwark). Crossing London Bridge, it went on to destroy a large part of the City itself.
As well as destroying buildings on London Bridge including houses and the chapel (the structure itself, having recently been rebuilt in stone, survived somewhat intact although it only remained in partial use for some time afterward), also destroyed the Southwark church known as St Mary Overie (precursor to today’s Southwark Cathedral) as well as many buildings around Borough High Street.
There were apparently numerous deaths – the story goes that many of them occurred when a mass of people poured onto London Bridge from the City as they attempted to cross to Southwark to help put out the fire (or perhaps just gawk at it).
They were trapped in the middle of the bridge when, with the south end was already ablaze, the north end caught fire from sparks. As well as suffering fatally from the effects of flames and smoke, people were apparently crushed in panic and others were pushed off the bridge to drown in the River Thames (along with some of the boat crews who tried to rescue them).
And, just as the Great Fire of 1666, the fire of 1212 did result in some building reforms including the placement of a ban on the use of thatch for rooves.
September 12, 2016
The race, which had started in China, was part of a tradition for ships carrying cargoes of tea from the east to engage in a race to be the first to dock in London – and quite a lucrative one, for it was common for the first ship to arrive to receive a premium of at least 10 per cent (although 1866 was apparently the last time this was offered).
At least 57 ships apparently sailed in the 1866-67 ‘tea season’, departing for Britain from a range of ports including Shanghai, Canton and Hong Kong. But it was the fastest which gathered the most attention – these chosen clippers set sail for Britain from the Min River, downriver from Foochow (now Fuzhou), in late May, 1866.
As well as the Taeping, launched in 1863 and captained by Donald MacKinnon, and the Ariel, launched only the previous year and captained by John Keay, other favourites in the 1866 race included Fiery Cross, Serica and Taitsing.
The race was followed breathlessly in the London press although details were limited – largely due to the time it took for the news to reach London – as the ships set a course which took them through Indonesia via the Sunda Strait and around the southern tip of Africa and up via the Atlantic to the UK.
The Taeping, the race winner, reached London Docks at 9.47pm on 6th September while Ariel arrived at the East India Dock at 10.15pm. The Serica, meanwhile, reached West India Docks at 11.30pm. (It wasn’t to be too unfortunate for the runner-up – Captains McKinnon and Keay had apparently agreed to split the premium of 10 shillings a ton).
Amazingly, this means the three ships – which had all left China on the same tide – had sailed more than 14,000 miles in a race of 99 days yet had managed to dock with just two hours between them.
August 15, 2016
It’s the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London ands we thought we’d take a quick look at what happened in the aftermath.
With much of the city razed in the four day fire of early September, 1666, attention quickly turned to the rebuilding of the City and within just a few days, proposals began coming in for the recreation – and transformation – of London.
Christopher Wren, John Evelyn and Robert Hooke were among those who put forward new designs for the city along with the likes of one Richard Newcourt, whose proposed rigid grid featuring churches set in squares wasn’t adopted for London but was eventually for the streets of Philadelphia in what is now the United States of America.
None of these plans – Wren’s vision had apparently been inspired by the Gardens of Versailles while Evelyn’s was an Italianate city with wide piazzas – were eventually adopted, however, thanks largely to the difficulty in working out who owned which properties in the city (people had more on their mind, such as survival perhaps).
In October, 1666, King Charles II – who had encouraged many of those left homeless to move out of the City out of fears that a rebellion was in the offing – joined with the City authorities in appointing six commissioners to regulate the rebuilding (a key factor in which was the mandatory use of brick in place of wood).
Their actions were supported by a couple of parliamentary acts – drawn up to regulate the rebuilding and allow for the opening and widening of roads, among other things – and the establishment of specially convened Fire Courts to deal with property disputes (owners had to clear roadways of debris and establish their rights of ownership before they could start reconstruction).
Rebuilding was, not surprisingly, to take years – after all, almost 400 acres had been burned within the City walls and 63 acres outside them with more than 80 churches, 44 livery halls and more than 13,000 houses among the casualties. And it was patchy with new buildings standing alongside empty blocks awaiting reconstruction.
Construction of the many grand public buildings destroyed in the fire, such as St Paul’s Cathedral, would also take years (the cathedral, Wren’s Baroque masterpiece, wasn’t completed until 1711).
PICTURE: The Monument, which commemorates the Great Fire of London, is among the works of Sir Christopher Wren (for more on the Monument, see our earlier post here).
With the recent change at 10 Downing Street – David Cameron out/Theresa May in – we thought it a good time to look back at when the man considered Britain’s first PM moved in.
Sir Robert Walpole, commonly considered Britain’s first Prime Minister although he was never formally known by that title, was actually First Lord of the Treasury when in early 1730s King George II presented him with the terrace house at 10 Downing Street, off Whitehall, and the large mansion behind it (in fact the title of ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ can still be seen inscribed on the brass letter-box on the property’s front door).
Sir Robert accepted the king’s gift, but only on condition that it be made available to all future First Lords of the Treasury And he didn’t move in until 22nd September, 1735, having had architect William Kent join the terrace house with the mansion behind it before doing so.
Kent had joined the houses on two levels with the main entrance facing onto Downing Street instead of Horse Guards. The Walpoles would live at the back of the new house where Kent had created a series of grand rooms – suitable for receiving honoured guests – and had built an unusual three sided staircase which remains a star sight of the building today.
Walpole used the ground floor of the new property for business and set-up his study in what is now the Cabinet Room. Lady Walpole used the upstairs room now known as the White Drawing Room as her sitting room and what is now called the Terracotta Room (although the name of this room changes with the colour scheme) as the dining room.
Among those who attended 10 Downing Street during the Walpole’s residency were luminaries such as Queen Caroline (wife of King George II) as well as prominent politicians, writers and military figures.
The Walpoles left in 1742 and it was more than 20 years later before another First Lord of the Treasury moved in.
PICTURE: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC/ Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
June 6, 2016
OK, so it doesn’t look like the most historic of pubs but the Bricklayer’s Arms in Putney does boast an interesting history (as well as a much accoladed menu ales).
Then named the Waterman’s Arms, thanks no doubt to its Thames proximity and the fact that, as a result, most of the clientele were freeman and lightermen working on the river, it changed its name to the Bricklayer’s Arms around the turn of the 20th century when, thanks to the extension of the District line railway, there was a sizeable amount of construction going on in the area.
It was briefly known as the Putney Brick before the current owners – actress Becky Newman and her husband John – took over the pub just over 10 years ago, during which time it has won a swag of awards including being named one of the top 10 English pubs by National Geographic and winning the CAMRA National Pub of the Year Award in 2007 and 2009.
For more on the pub (and the plans to extend it), check out www.bricklayers-arms.co.uk.
April 5, 2016
Regent’s Canal in the city’s north. For more on the history of the canal, see our much earlier post here.
April 4, 2016
Queen Elizabeth II, the oldest British monarch, celebrates her 90th birthday later this month and, although we’ve run a piece on the Queen’s birth before, we thought it only fitting to take a second look at what proved to be a momentous birth.
The then Princess Elizabeth (Elizabeth Alexandra Mary) was born at 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair – the London home of her maternal grandparents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore (they also owned Glamis Castle in Scotland) – at 2.40am on 21st April, 1926.
She was apparently delivered by Caesarian section and the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, was in attendance to ensure everything was above board (the custom, which has since been dropped, was apparently adopted after what was known as the ‘Warming Pan Scandal’ when, following the birth of Prince James Francis Edward, son of King James II and Queen Mary of Modena, in June, 1688, rumours spread that the baby had been stillborn and replaced by an imposter brought into the chamber inside a warming pan).
The first child of the Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Bertie) and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), she was third in line to the throne at her birth but thanks to the abdication of King Edward VIII, became her father’s heir.
The event apparently drew a crowd to the property (although none could yet suspect how important this princess was to become) and among the well-wishers who visited the newborn that afternoon were her paternal grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary, who had apparently been woken at 4am to be informed of the birth of their second grandchild.
The property was to be Princess Elizabeth’s home for the first few months of her life (named after her mother, paternal great-grandmother, Queen Alexandra, and paternal grandmother, Queen Mary, she was christened in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace five weeks after her birth).
The home of her birth and a neighbouring townhouse have both since been demolished and replaced by an office building. A plaque commemorating it as the Queen’s birthplace was installed in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Year of 1977 and another to mark the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
The Queen’s birthday will be officially commemorated in June.
PICTURE: Via London Remembers
February 29, 2016
It was in February, 1616 – 400 years ago this year – that the adventurer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh (Ralegh) was released from the Tower of London where he had spent the last 13 years of his life. Sadly, his freedom was to be short-lived.
Raleigh had been imprisoned in 1603 by King James I – not his biggest fan – after being accused of plotting against the king and subsequently sentenced to death for treason (a sentence which was then commuted to life imprisonment).
The Tower, where he’d been imprisoned a couple of times before – most notably by Queen Elizabeth I for secretly marrying Bessy Throckmorton, one of her maids-of-honour, was to be his home for the next 13 years.
It was in Bloody Tower (in left of picture) that his rather luxurious ‘cell’ was located. Originally known as the Garden Tower, it was renamed for the tradition that the two ‘Princes in the Tower’, King Edward V and his brother Richard, had been murdered here in 1483.
The tower’s top floor was added specifically to provide more room for his family in 1605-06 (and Raleigh’s son Carew was conceived and born while he was imprisoned here). It was also during this time of imprisonment that he wrote his History of the World (published in 1614).
Raleigh was released in 1616 to lead an expedition to the New World – he’d previously been on a couple of expeditions there including one with his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert aimed at finding the Northwest Passage (but which deteriorated into privateering and led to his brief imprisonment following his return to England), and one aimed at finding the legendary ‘golden land’ of El Dorado (which he failed to do). It was again with the purpose of finding gold that he now returned to the Orinoco River region of South America.
Failure, however, was once more the outcome, and on Raleigh’s return to England, the death sentence issued on 1603 was reimposed (for his failure but also for attacking the Spanish in defiance of the king’s instructions to specifically not do so, although the blame was not all his). He would be executed in Old Palace Yard at Westminster on 29th October, 1618.
February 9, 2016
A quiet moment in one of Covent Garden’s covered arcades. For more on the history of Covent Garden, see our earlier post here.
January 20, 2016
It seems an age ago that we started this Wednesday series on some of London’s ‘battlefields’ (we’ve used quotes given many of the battlefields we’ve covered haven’t featured what we might think of as having hosted battles in the traditional sense).
But we’ve finally come to an end, so before we launch a new series next week, here’s a recap of what the series entailed and please vote for your favourite below…
Top posts of 2015 – A garden gem; London and the Peasant’s Revolt; and, the Duke of Wellington’s cloak…
December 28, 2015
10. Our 10th most popular post was published in July came from our special series on “10 small, ‘secret’ and historic gardens in central London” and looks at the origins of The Goldsmith’s Garden – 10 small, ‘secret’ and historic gardens in central London…1. Goldsmiths’ Garden…
9. Published in November, our ninth most popular post was from our current special series on London ‘battlefields’ and looks at the role the city played in the 14th century Peasant’s Revolt – 10 London ‘battlefields’ – 3. London sacked in the Peasant’s Revolt…
8. At number eight is a post from our long-running Treasures of London series, which, in the year of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, looks at a recent acquisition by the National Army Museum – Wellington’s cloak – Treasures of London – Duke of Wellington’s cloak…
We’ll look at numbers seven through five tomorrow…
November 16, 2015
There’s a couple of different suggestions as to how Bleeding Heart Yard – a small courtyard located in the Farringdon area of the City of London, just north of Ely Place – obtained its rather descriptive – and gory – name.
The more prosaic answer is that it was named after an inn which, from the 16th century, stood on the yard and had a sign showing the heart of the Virgin Mary pierced by five swords.
The more interesting answer, on the other hand, is that the name commemorates the horrible murder of Lady Elizabeth Hatton (of the famed Cecil family), second wife of Sir William Hatton (formerly known as Newport), and, after his death, wife of Sir Edward Coke.
The story goes that her corpse was found here on 27th January, 1626, with the beating heart torn from the body.
A version of the legend – albeit with a slightly different protagonist – appears in a story published in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837 which told of how the wife of Sir Christopher Hatton (he was actually the uncle of Sir William Hatton), made a somewhat ill-conceived pact with the Devil to secure wealth, position and a mansion in Holborn. The Devil dances with her during the housewarming party at the new home and then tears out her heart, found beating in the yard the next morning.
The yard also features in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit where it is the location of the home of the Plornish family.
October 7, 2015
We’ve mentioned the Geffrye Museum gardens before but they’re well worth a more detailed mention.
There are two distinct gardens at the Geffrye – the first are the public gardens located just off Kingsland Road which were originally laid out when the almshouses in which the museum is now based were constructed while the second is the walled herb garden and series of period garden ‘rooms’ which are much more recent additions.
While origins of the former date back to when the almshouses – 14 homes of four rooms each with a central chapel – were built in 1712-14 by the Ironmonger’s Company under instructions in the will of Sir Robert Geffrye (for more on him, see our earlier Famous Londoners entry here), they weren’t opened to the public until 1912 when the London County Council took over the site (for more on the history of the almshouses, see our earlier entries here and here).
These gardens originally featured a series of lime trees and by the early 19th century, an image shows lawns surrounded by railings with some flower beds and trees. The front lawns were apparently grazed by sheep or employed for growing crops of potatoes.
By the mid-1800s, the lime trees had been replaced by London plane trees, most of which are still standing. The gardens were again laid out in 1900-01 and again after the LCC took over in 1910 when a small pool was added in front of the chapel and a bandstand and playground elsewhere in the gardens.
The grounds also include a small graveyard – that of the Ironmongers’ – and among those buried here are Geffrye and his wife, their remains brought here from the chapel of St Dionis Backchurch in Lime Street when it was demolished in 1878.
The walled herb garden and period garden ‘rooms’, meanwhile, were added in the 1990s. The herb garden opened in 1992 on a what had been a derelict site to the north of the building – it features four square beds containing more than 170 different herbs and plants.
The period garden ‘rooms’, meanwhile, were laid out in 1998 to showcase middle class town gardens from different eras. They currently include a Tudor “knot garden”, a Georgian garden, a Victorian garden and an Edwardian garden.
Each of these gardens has been carefully constructed using evidence gathered from drawings and prints, maps and garden plans along with plant lists, diaries and literature.
WHERE: Geffrye Museum, 136 Kingsland Road, Shoreditch (nearest tube station is Old Street; nearest Overground station is Hoxton); WHEN: 10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday (front gardens are open all year round by period and herb gardens are only open until 1st November and reopen on 28th March; COST: Entry is free; WEBSITE: www.geffrye-museum.org.uk/explore-the-geffrye/explore-gardens/.
October 6, 2015
Painted in 1890, the painting – never seen before in the UK – depicts people strolling along the clifftops at Coogee in Sydney, looking eastward over the gleaming blue of the Pacific Ocean.
Christopher Riopelle, the gallery’s curator of post-1800 European paintings, says Streeton’s use of the vertical format was “brilliantly calculated to exploit the contrast between the azure sheet of water and the subtly observed depictions of rock face and sky”.
“Still young, but at the height of his powers, Streeton demonstrates here how impression was a capacious and flexible tool for confronting the awesome landscape unique to Australia.”
Streeton (1867-1943) was considered one of the most advanced landscape painters in Australia in the 1880s and 1890s and was one of the first to adopt an impressionist style. His masterpiece, Golden Summer (1889), was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1891.
Blue Pacific is now on show in Room 43 at the gallery off Trafalgar Square alongside Monet’s Water-Lilies and Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian. Entry is free. For more on the gallery, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
PICTURE: Blue Pacific, 1890, Sir Arthur Streeton (1867 – 1943), oil on canvas, © on loan from a private collection/via National Gallery.
October 5, 2015
This year marks the 710th anniversary of the execution of Scottish rebel William Wallace in Smithfield so we thought we’d take a quick look at the circumstances of that event – made famous in recent times through the movie Braveheart.
For some eight years, Wallace had been a thorn in the side of the King Edward I, promoting active resistance to his rule in Scotland after Edward forced the abdication and usurption of the crown of John Balliol.
Following a crushing defeat at the Battle of Falkirk on 22nd July, 1298, however, Wallace went to France where he attempted to gain French support for rebellion in Scotland but the effort proved ultimately futile and Wallace, back in Britain but refusing to submit to English rule, remained on the run.
At least until he was captured on 5th August, 1305, by Sir John Monteith, who had been made Sheriff of Dumbarton by King Edward I, at Robroyston near Glasgow.
Taken to Carlisle, he was bound hand and foot before being taken south to London in chains.
Wallace’s trial took place on 23rd August that year at Westminster Hall and, despite his protestations that he couldn’t be guilty of treason having never sworn loyalty to the English Crown, a guilty verdict was handed down along with the sentence of a traitor’s death – being hung, drawn and quartered.
Taken to the Tower of London, Wallace was stripped naked and then strapped to a wooden hurdle which was dragged by two horses through the streets via Aldgate to The Elms at Smithfield where he was hanged on a gallows.
Cut down while yet living, he was disembowelled and castrated and his entrails burnt. Wallace was then decapitated and his body cut into quarters which were sent to Berwick, Newcastle, Stirling and Perth as a warning against treason. His tarred head, meanwhile, was put on a pike and set above London Bridge.
A memorial to Wallace can now be found on the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital at West Smithfield (pictured – for more on that, see our earlier post here).
September 14, 2015
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the building of Hampton Court Palace in Greater London’s south-west. We speak to Sheila Dunsmore, a State Apartment warder at Hampton Court Palace (pictured above in centre on the left)…
1. It’s Hampton Court Palace’s 500th anniversary – who first built the palace and why? “In 1514, Thomas Wolsey came to survey the land at Hampton Court. He wanted to find a suitable place to build a sumptuous country retreat away from the dirt of London, but close enough to the capital to travel back for meetings. It was also to be a place to entertain the important company his position as Archbishop of York provided, of which none were more important than young King Henry VIII.”
2. Where are the oldest parts of the palace today? “The oldest part of the palace is the Tudor kitchens, more specifically the area were the great fire is. This was once part of Sir Giles Daubeney’s original kitchen, and dates back to the manor already on the site when it was acquired by Wolsey. Sir Giles Daubeney was Lord Chamberlain to Henry VII, and acquired an 80 year lease on the property from the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, the then owners. The bell in the tower above the astronomical clock is also said to have come from the Knights Hospitallers’ original manor house.”
3. Hampton Court’s 500 years of history spans a number of definable eras – from Tudor to the 21st century. Which is your favourite and why? “My favourite era is the 1660s when Charles II came back to England to take up his rightful place as king. Although visitors do not really associate Charles with the palace, he did spend time here, most famously his honeymoon!”
4. With this in mind what is your favourite part of the palace? “I love the west front façade – it just looks so imposing and mysterious. Whether you are driving or walking past it it’s guaranteed to draw you in under its spell!”
5. Do you have a favourite anecdote from the palace’s history? “I love the story of Horace Beauchamp Seymour, a dashing military hero who had fought at the Battle of Waterloo. He came to live at the palace in 1827 and, as a handsome eligible widower, he caused quite a sensation amongst the ladies, especially when he joined the Sunday services at the Chapel Royal. It was not long before a series of fainting episodes began, with the strategically placed young lady fainting into the arms of the dashing Horace, who then proceeded to carry the lady out and stay with her until she regained her composure. After a third successive Sunday of fainting’s, the epidemic was brought to a swift halt by the aunt of Mr Seymour, herself also a palace resident. The feisty old lady pinned a sign to the chapel door warning any lady feeling faint that forthcoming Sunday that Bransome the dustbin man would be carrying her out. Needless to say the fainting ceased!”
6. A complex of buildings dating back as far as 500 years obviously requires considerable upkeep. What are the greatest challenges with regard to maintaining the palace? “I think the biggest challenge would have to be generating the money to keep restoring and conserving this historic palace. To do this we have to keep making sure that people want to visit, from international tour groups to local families who might visit again and again. To do this teams right across the palace work to create exciting exhibitions, immersive events and guided tours to ensure we’re offering people a memorable experience.”
7. Are there any areas of the palace which remain unseen by the public? And any plans to open further areas up? “The palace contains over 1,000 rooms, and visitors get to discover about a quarter of these during their visit. Some years ago we held a Servants, Soldiers and Suffragettes exhibition in a suite of rooms on the top floor of Fountain Court (previously unseen). It was incredibly popular so I’d imagine that in the future we’d look for other such opportunities to share other areas of the palace with our visitors. For anyone that can’t wait that long, on one night of the year (Halloween no less), our adults-only ghost tour offers the chance to peek behind the scenes and explore some areas of the palace off the beaten track!”
8. Are there any ‘secrets’ about the palace you can reveal to us? “A palace as old and as large as Hampton Court holds its fair share of secrets…When the fire took hold in 1986 it was devastating, but in a strange twist of fate some good came from it as well. As restoration of the damaged interiors took place little secrets were revealed to us; behind wood panelling in King William’s damaged rooms hand prints were found in the plaster from the palace’s builders, and sketches were found from the architects with designs for the rooms, all worked directly onto the bare walls. Most exciting of all, however, was the object found downstairs. During work to return King William’s private dining room (which had lost its original look over the years and been used as a function room for the grace and favour residents) to its former glory, a gun was found behind some wooden panelling. The gun dated from the late 1800s, and had a regimental dinner menu was wrapped around it. This is so intriguing – what was the story behind this gun? Who did it belong to? Why did they hide the weapon?”
9. If someone has just one day to visit the palace, what’s your ideal itinerary? “This is a tricky one, and depends very much on the individual…and the weather! I would say on a sunny day start by enjoying a historic welcome with our costumed interpreters, which really helps to set the scene. If it’s a bit chilly pick up a cloak to wear – you can choose between dressing as a Tudor or Georgian courtier. Heading inside, I’d start in the Tudor State Apartments to discover the rich opulence of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, then visit the recently opened Cumberland Art Gallery, which contains masterpieces by Rembrandt, Canaletto and Van Dyck. Next I’d take in the baroque splendour of the Queen’s State Apartments, then explore the maze, East Front Garden and Privy Garden (weather permitting!). After a spot of lunch I’d suggest visiting the Mantegna Gallery, then the Young Henry exhibition which explores the life of the young Henry VIII, before finishing the day in King William III’s apartments.”
10. Finally, Historic Royal Palaces has already commemorated the 500th anniversary in numerous ways – from a spectacular fireworks display to a jousting tournament. Are there any more events coming up? “The beginning of September saw our costumed interpreters back with their own inimitable brand of entertainment, while at the end of September we’re hosting a sleepover inside the palace! As the evenings draw in, our popular ghost tours return for the winter season. Even further ahead we’ve got a series of carol evenings and even an ice rink for our visitors to enjoy!”
WHERE: Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey (nearest station is Hampton Court from Waterloo); WHEN: 10am to 6pm until 24th October after which it’s open to 4.30pm); COST: Adult £19.30, Concession £16, Child under 16 £9.70 (under fives free), family tickets, garden only tickets and online booking discounts available; WEBSITE:www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/.
August 3, 2015
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).