Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Great Plague - London,1665-66

The plague is well-named. The disease was the scourge of Europe from the fourteenth century onwards: arriving in Weymouth in 1348, it is estimated to have killed around half the population of England by the end of the century (Mortimer), coming in successive waves. The country continued to suffer outbreaks for over 300 years; and if the ‘Great Plague’ of 1665-66 wasn’t the worst, it was certainly one of the last major outbreaks.
The Plague – Causes and Symptoms

There are three different types of plague which affect humans – bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic - and it is probable that all three types were present in Europe during the middle Ages. As no cure was developed until the twentieth century, the best chance of survival was to be taken ill with bubonic plague, which has a roughly 60% death rate: the other two were almost always fatal.

Plague was transmitted by fleas which lived on black rats; it could therefore be spread without direct human contact (which is how it reached the Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1665). Pneumonic plague doesn’t require flea bites and can also spread directly from person to person. Being highly contagious, this meant the disease rapidly took hold in crowded conditions, just like those which prevailed in the poorer parts of London in the seventeenth century.

The best-known symptoms of the disease were the so-called ‘buboes’, painful swellings on armpits, legs, groin and neck which were at first red, turning purple or black (hence the ‘black death’) before bursting. Other symptoms included high fever, delirium, vomiting, muscular pain, an intense lethargy and bleeding from the lungs. Death was rapid and generally occurred in 2-4 days.
The Plague in Seventeenth Century London

Though the so-called Great Plague which struck London and other parts of England in 1665 was by no means as devastating as earlier outbreaks, it was a significant outbreak. Estimates vary, but the National Archive suggests that the death toll was as high as 100,000 in London alone (a recorded figure of 68,596 deaths is thought to be an underestimate) and that 15% of Londoners fell victim: other sources have higher figures.

First cases were recorded in the spring of 1665 and the infection rate – and death rate – rose sharply in the summer. By August the monthly deaths were over 30,000 (Historic UK). While initially victims were buried in cemeteries, mortality rates grew so fast that the dead were buried in mass graves known as plague pits, in locations such as Aldgate and Finsbury Fields.

The disease retreated in the autumn and winter, returning in the spring. The rich, including the King and the court, reacted by leaving London whereas the poor were not only unable but forbidden to do so as movement was restricted by the authorities in order to stem the spread of the disease.

The small domestic fire which became the Great Fire of London began early in the morning on 2 September 1666 in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane. At the time the city was not only made up of wooden buildings which were crammed together, but it was in the throes of a long hot period, so that the wood was dry and ripe for burning.

Under these conditions, the fire spread rapidly. It lasted for four days and could bee seen from miles around. The devastation it created was immense: only 15% of the city’s area was left untouched. The fire had claimed over 13,000 houses, 89 churches and four bridges while over 100,000 people were left homeless. For all this, however, the fire claimed few lives (the London Fire Brigade estimates indicate six deaths and the BBC eight).

It has long been taught in schools that the Great Fire caused the end of the Great Plague and that it was therefore not a bad thing to happen. In theory, the fire killed or drove away the rats and fleas which bore the disease. In reality, however, there is no evidence that this was the case.

Historian Justin Champion, quoted on the Channel 4 website, notes that the fire destroyed the areas within the city walls whereas in fact the plague was prevalent in the poorer areas which lay outside them. As deaths from the disease had peaked a whole year before the fire, in September 1665, it seems likely that it was in any case on the wane.

It’s certainly true, as the BBC notes, that plague didn’t recur in London after the Great Fire, but this may well have been a part of the natural progression of the disease. In fact the reasons for the decline of the plague are not yet understood and may well may well be attributable to independent factors such as changes in the nature of the bacteria which caused it.

The contribution of the Great Fire to public health is more general. Rebuilding in stone, and to a more spacious street plan, meant an end to the previous overcrowded conditions where contagion could spread so quickly. This not only affected the plague but other diseases as well. It is not possible, however, to ascribe the end of the plague with any certainty to the cleansing effects of the fire, no matter how tempting a solution that might seem.

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