1902 Encyclopedia > Plague > The Great Plague of London, 1664-65.

The Plague
(Bubonic Plague; Black Death; etc.)
(Part 9)

The Great Plague of London, 1664-65

The preceding enumeration will have prepared the reader to view the great plague of 1664-65 in its true relation to others, and not as an isolated phenomenon. The preceding years had been usually free from plague, and it was not mentioned in the bills of mortality till in the autumn of 1664 (November 2nd) a few isolated cases were observed in the parishes of St Giles and St Martin’s, Westminster, and a few occurred in the following winter, was very severe. About May 1665 the disease again became noticeable, and spread, but somewhat slowly. Boghurst, a contemporary doctor, notices that it crept down Holborn and took six months to travel from the western suburbs (St Giles) to the eastern (Stepney) through the city. The mortality rapidly rose from 43 in May to 590 in June, 6137 in July, 17,037 in August, 31,159 in September, after which to began to decline. The total number of deaths from in that year, according to the bills of mortality was 68,596, in a population estimated at 460,000, [Footnote 165-3] out of out of whom two-thirds are supposed to have fled to escape the contagion. This number is likely to be rather too low than too high, since of the 6432 deaths from spotted fever many were probably really from plague, though not declared so to avoid painful restrictions. In December there was a sudden fall in the mortality which continued through the winter; but in 1666 nearly 2000 deaths from plague are recorded.

According to some authorities, especially Hodges, the plague was imported into London by bales of merchandise from Holland, which came originally from the Levant; according to others it was introduced by Dutch prisoner of war; but Boghurst regarded it as of local origin. It is in favour of the theory that it spread by some means from Holland that plague had been all but extinct in London for some seventeen years, and prevailed in Holland in 1663-64. But from its past history and local conditions, London might well be deemed capable of producing such an epidemic. In the bills of mortality since 1603 there are only three years when no deaths from plague are recorded. The uncleanliness of the city was comparable to that of Oriental cities at the present day, and, according to contemporary testimony (Garencières, Angliae Flagellum, London 1647, p. 85), little improved since Erasmus wrote his well-known description. The spead of the disease only partially supported the doctrine of contagion, as Boghurst says:-- " The disease spread not altogether by contagion at first, nor began only at one place and spread further and further as an eating sore doth all over the body, but fell upon several places of city and suburbs like rain." In fact dissemination seem to have taken place, as usual, by the conversion of one house after another into a focus of disease, a process favoured by the fatal custom of shutting up infected houses with all their inmates, which was not only almost equivalent to a sentence of death of all therein, but caused a dangerous concentration of the poison. The well-known custom of marking such houses with a red cross and the legend "God have mercy upon us!" was no new thing; it is found in a proclamation in the possession of the present writer dated 1641; and it was probably older still. Hodges testifies to the futility and injurious effects of these regulations. The lord mayor and magistrates not only carried out the appointed administrative measures, but looked to the cleanliness of the city and the relief of the poor, so that there was little or no actual want; and the burial arrangements appear to have been well attended to. The college of physicians, by royal command, put forth such advice and prescriptions as were through best for the emergency. But it is clear that neither these measures nor medical treatment had any effect in checking the disease. Early in November with colder weather it began to decline; and in December there was so little fear to contagion that those who had left the city "crowded back and thick as they fled." As has often been observed in other plague epidemics, plague epidemics, sound people could enter infected house and even sleep in the beds of those who had died of the plague "before they were even cold or cleansed from the stench of the diseased" (Hodges). The symptoms of the disease being such as have been generally observed need not be here considered. The disease was, as always, most destructive in squalid, dirty neighbourhoods and among the poor, so as to be called the "poor’s plague." Those who lived in the town in barges or ships did not take the disease; and the houses on London Bridge but little affected. Of those doctors who remained in the city some eight or nine died, not large proportion. Some had the rare courage to investigate the mysterious disease by dissecting the bodies of the dead. Hodges implies that he did so, though he left no full account of his observations. Dr George Thomson, a chemist and a disciple of Van Halmont, followed the example, and nearly lost his life by an attack which immediately followed. [Footnote 165-4]

The plague of 1665 was widely spread over England, and was generally regarded as having been transmitted from London, as it appeared mostly later than metropolis, and in many cases the importation by a particular person could be traced. Places near London were earliest affected, as Brentford, Greenwich, Deptford; but in July or August 1665 it was already in Southampton, Sunderland, Newcastle, &c. A wider distribution occurred in the next year. Oxford entirely escaped, though the residence of the court and in constant communication with London. The exemption was attributed to cleanliness and good drainage.

After 1666 there was no epidemic of plague in London or any part of England, though sporadic cases appear in bills of mortality up to 1679 ; and a column filled up with "0" filled up with "0" was left till 1703, when it finally disappeared. The disappearance of plague in London was attributed to the Great Fire, but no such cause existed in other cities. It has also been ascribed to quarantine, but no effective quarantine was established till 1720, so that the cessation of plague in the England must be regarded as spontaneous.

But this was no isolated fact. A similar cessation of plague was noted soon after in the greater part of western Europe. In 1666 a severe plague raged in Cologne and on the Rhine, which was prolonged till 1670 in the district. In the Netherlands there was plague in 1667-69, but there are no definite notices of it after 1672. France saw the last plague epidemic in 1668, till it reappeared in 1720. In the years 1675-84 a new plague epidemic appeared in North Africa, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Germany, progressing generally northward. Malta lost 11,000 persons in 1675. The plague of Vienna in 1679 was very severe, causing 76,000 or probably more details. Prague in 1681 lost 83,000 by plague. Dresden was affected in 1680, Magdeburg and Halle in 1682, -- in the latter town with a mortality of 4397 out of a population of about 10,000. Many North German cities suffered about the same time ; but in 1683 the plague disappeared from Germany till the epidemic of 1707. In Spain it ceased about 1681; in Italy certain cities were attacked till the end of the century, but not later (Hirsch).


165-3 Graunt, Observations on the Bills of Mortality, 3d cd., London, 1665.

165-4 On the plague of 1665 see Nath. Hodges, Loimologia siver Pestis nuperae apud populum Londinensem narratio, London, 1672, 8vo, -- in English by Quincy, London, 1720 (the chief authority); Loimographia [Gk.], or an Experimental Relation of the last Plague in the City of London, by William Boghurst, apothecary in St Giles’s-in-the-Fields, London, 1666, -- a MS. In British Museum (Sloane 349), containing important details; George Thomson, AOIMOTOMIA, or the Pest Anatomized, 8vo, London, 1666; Sydenham, "Febris pestilentialis et pestis annorum 1665–66," Opera, ed. Greenhill, p. 96, London, 1844; Collection of Scarce Pieces on the Plague in 1665, London, 1721, 8vo ; Defoe’s fascinating Journal of a Citizen, which should be read the admired as a fiction, but accepted with caution as history; T. Vincent (minister of the gospel), God’s Terrible Voice in the City, 8vo, London, 1667; Calendar of State Papers, 1665–6 (Domestic Series), by M. E. Green.

Read the rest of this article:
Plague - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries