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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

London Plagued (2 of 6 or 7)

"Perhaps no event was so to prove the true warmth and love that dwelt in the Puritan's heart as the year of the Great Plague: it demonstrated that they were indeed the last persons in London deserving of such epithets as cold, heartless and severe. The "hypocrisy" charge flung at them so repeatedly since the Restoration was now to boomerang with a vengeance upon their accusers. The people who ought to have stood by London left her helpless, and the men who had humanly no cause to stay, for they had been expelled from their labours and strictly speaking debarred from the City by the Corporation Act of 1664 (though it was never really enforced in London), were the very ones who did heroically stand in the breach. The Court of Charles II had early in July and the palace which three years before had resounded with revelry at the arrival of Catherine of Braganza was left as silent as a tomb. They cannot be blamed for seeking a more healthy locality than Whitehall, but as the leading historian of the Great Plague, Walter G. Bell, has written, the callous indifference with which the capital was left to its fate "must for ever remain a black stain on Charles' Government.''¹ But they were not the only ones of whom different things might have been expected. The College of Physicians at Amen Corner was as deserted as the palace of Whitehall and the Faculty away in the country. Worse still, perhaps, was the fact that so many of the clergy had joined in the rush out of town leaving their pulpits empty and their parishioners bereft of spiritual aid. This was not true of them all, but it was true enough to discredit the London clergy generally to cause pamphlets to be circulated in the streets announcing "Pulpits to Let", and to draw from Bishop Henchman the admission that most of his own officers had deserted him. "It will be no news to you," wrote Dr. Barwick to his friend William Sancroft, Dean of St. Paul's, who was on a long holiday at Tunbridge Wells" (for you can easily imagine it) that the mouths of a slanderous generation are wide open enough against those that are withdrawn, both of your profession and ours".²

Had we walked the narrow, airless streets that morning we should soon have seen evidence on every hand of the desolation that had first struck London three months before and was still spreading with silent but irresistible power. By now almost everything was being forgotten by the citizens except the concern to remain alive: houses stood shuttered as though the enemy was in every street - men fearing lest the very air they breathed might carry the plague; few were about except those driven by necessity; everywhere there were signs of neglect - stench in side-alleys unwashed by rain, grass growing were normally it had never been; neglect everywhere, that is, except in the grave-yards which appeared like ploughed fields with the earth turned in every available space and in some cases the very ground raised in order to accommodate the dead. Ten thousand dwellings stood marked with grim red crosses, a precaution that had been taken earlier to stop the spread of the plague by keeping all who lived in houses which the infection had reached locked within doors, but which was now being abandoned as matters were terribly beyond any attempts at control. When men were dying by tens or hundreds such measures were possible, now it was by thousands and not even the weekly Bills of Mortality nor the toiling Parish Clerks could keep trace of the numbers. One parish burial register contains an entry neatly begun but abruptly broken off, the page splattered with ink and the same handwriting no longer appearing on future pages. The clerk of burials was not exempt from death. Perhaps the number that died between that 24th day of August and the end of that same month was something near 10,000. "Now the cloud is very black," writes Thomas Vincent in his 'God's Terrible Voice in the City', "and the storm comes down upon us very sharp. Now people fall as thick as leaves from the trees in autumn, when they are shaken by a mighty wind .... Now in some places where the people did generally stay, not one house in an hundred but is infected; and in many houses half the family is swept away; in some the whole, from the eldest to the youngest; few escape with the death of but one or two; never did so many husbands and wives die together; never did so many parents carry their children with them to the grave, and go together into the same house under earth, who had lived together in the same
house upon it."

Such was London on that summer's morning, what it was by night - the rumbling death-carts, the calls of the drivers and bearers ("a foul-mouthed crew"), the plague pits and grave-yards illuminated by flickering torch-light for the work which was generally left till darkness - these are things best passed over in silence.

More soon.

Sam Drucker


1. The Great Plague in London in 1665 by Walter G. Bell (1924) p68

2. Op. cit., p.224

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