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Monday, May 21, 2012

London Plagued (1 of 6 or 7)

This essay while slightly off track here still has a message for today. It was written about 50 years ago but draws from much earlier historical records.

"To the Puritans the city of London was the fairest city upon earth. They loved the very appearance of that square mile of cobbled, winding, streets, with their gabled, rough-cast and timbered houses - the upper stories projecting crazily outwards and the steeply-pitched red roofs reaching skywards. It was still, at the time of the Restoration of Charles II, a city enclosed by high and solid walls, but higher than the walls there stood out against the skyline a hundred church towers and spires, for London's churches were three times as numerous as those of any other city in the world. From the southern bank of the Thames the panorama of old London gave the seventeenth century artist fine scope for his skill: the houses crowding down to the very water's edge, the single ancient bridge with its nineteen stone arches and the river itself busy with "wherries" carrying passengers to Westminster and Vauxhall and with stoutly built vessels - the pride of England's craftsmen - home from almost all points of the compass. Thomas Brooks considered the Italian proverb about Venice far more applicable to England's capital, "He who hath not seen it will not believe, and he who hath not lived some time there doth not understand what a duty it is".

London was the centre of England in every sense - law, finance, commerce, shipping and, what we would tend to overlook, industry - were all then centred in the city. The finest shops and the busiest crafts were all there. Coopers, tanners, dyers, vintners, printers, these and many another trade made the city thrive with activity.

The old walls had never been built to contain the near half million people who now made London their home and the out-parishes which clustered around the two miles of wall were already in most cases densely over-crowded. Nor had the streets, with no pavements, been meant for the wheeled traffic that in Restoration times was harassing shop-keepers, pedestrians and drivers alike. Pepys mentions how his coach-driver one day knocked two pieces of a butcher's meat flying into the dirt and such incidents were evidently not uncommon sights. But these were just some of the signs that London was prospering, and with her prosperity was bound up the fortunes of the nation for no other English city had any comparable importance. Norwich, the second largest city in the land, had a population of no more than 30,000, and Bristol, which came third, only some 25,000. Probably about one in every fourteen people in Britain lived in London. "Was not London the glory of England?" Brooks was later to ask, "Was not London England’s treasury and the Protestants' sanctuary? Was not London as terrible to her enemies abroad, as she was joyous to her friends at home?"¹

Thursday, the 24th of August, 1665, came as had so many days of the weeks gone by, hot and cloudless. The weather of the past months had been not simply abnormal but phenomenal; apart from the times when breezes had stirred the motionless vanes on the Church spires the city had known days of sweltering heat and except for one fall of rain earlier in the month there had been no rain at all since April; "the driest summer that ever man have knew, or our forefathers mention of late ages", wrote Richard Baxter. Approaching the City from the south we would pass through meadows brown, dry and "burnt like the High-ways", into what had been the busy suburb of Southwark; there in the river-side parish of St. Olave by London Bridge, one of the Puritan ministers, John Allin, was busy writing to friends at Rye where he had ministered until 1662. We can hear part of his letter before we cross the Bridge into the City: "August 24 - I am, through mercy, yet well in the middest of death, and that, too, approaching neerer and neerer; not many doores off, and the pitt open dayly within view of my chamber window. The Lord fit me and all of us for our last end!"²

That morning the water of the rapids was tumbling through the arches of the old Bridge with an arresting distinctness for there were few other sounds to break the stillness which hung over the City. The wherries were mostly tied up and deserted at the landing stages, shop-keepers no longer called their wares, traffic no more struggled to get through jostling pedestrians and even the church bells - as though hoarse with continual tolling - were growing silent. The City gates were guarded, not to keep people out (for that there was no need) but to keep people in. Once it had become evident that London was in the grip of bubonic plague there had been such an exodus of both the well and the infected that in the second week of June it was announced that none could leave without a certificate of health signed by the Mayor. Having crossed the old Bridge we would immediately pass St. Magnus Church - memorable for the ministry of Joseph Caryl which had ended at the Great Ejection of 1662 - and if we climbed Fish Street Hill we would soon be in the heart of the London the Puritans loved.

More soon.

Sam Drucker


1. Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, Vol 6, p. 165. (Nichol's edition 1866-67.)

2. Quoted in The Great Plague in London in 1665 by Walter G. Bell (1924) p.259.

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