Dr Matthew Green takes us on whirlwind tour of periods of pestilence in the capital’s history
The Great Plague hit London in the spring of 1665 and scythed away full a quarter of its population. In the built-up area between the City, Westminster and Southwark, 100,000 died. It was the last gasp of a fatally persistent pandemic that had first struck the timbered medieval metropolis in 1348. What follows are some extracts from my book London: A Travel Guide through Time, in which I bring — hopefully in an uncomfortably vivid way — to life what it was like to live in, or at least visit, the capital at the height of the Plague, when buboes were sprouting on people’s necks, armpits and groins like there was no tomorrow.
The conceit of the book is that you are a time traveller visiting London in six key periods in its overall evolution from a chilly outpost of a far-off empire to the megalopolis that was the fulcrum of an empire bigger than its former overlord’s, Rome. It proceeds in the present tense, as though you are actually there, hopefully giving you a sense of the sights, sounds, smells and touches of London during the last time it was hit by a fecund pandemic. It draws of course upon the two classic accounts of the Great Plague — Samuel Pepys’s genuinely contemporaneous account, from his diary, and Daniel Defoe’s masterful Journal of a Plague Year written many years later in 1722, an account best described as extremely accurate historical fiction since the future spy, novelist and perfume merchant was only six when the plague hit.
Should you proceed to the whirlwind tour of pestilent London, much will feel familiar — the sense of a usually exuberant city grinding to a mortal halt, the policy of confinement, a sense of questioning the authorities’ response, the weekly mortality figures. But much, thankfully, will seem alien — the frightening, lantern-framed rustic plague pits gouged into the earth (lunch in Soho Square, anybody?), the deadcart, the belief in the agency of divine retribution, people dropping down dead mid-sentence, the dog massacres. All history of course is merely a reflection upon the present and you can take solace in the sense that things at the moment could be a lot, lot worse — with its mortality rate of around 1 per cent not 50% coronavirus is, in many ways, a socially-distanced children’s picnic — and that the city that was described in 1617 as “the shop of the world, the magazine of nature’s dainties” will bounce back with a vengeance — as ever it has.
— Dr Matthew Green
PS The passages that follow are all excerpted from London: A Travel Guide through Time (Penguin)
The Plague Pit
The wind is blowing in your face. You hear a shovel slicing into the earth. Torches hiss. People sob, gently. There is the occasional whiff of garlic and tobacco. Behind you, a voice recites a prayer and from somewhere, a horse snorts, straining on its leashes.
You open your eyes.
In front of you, where the car park was, is a vast, wide hole gouged into open fields. It is framed by horn lanterns. You are amongst dim figures, muffled up in long black cloaks and broad-rimmed steeple hats. Some appear to be digging. Others just stand. The air is laden with the scent of death.
You take a few steps forwards and peer into the pit. It is a mass grave. There is a fresh layer of dead bodies about ten feet down – some wrapped in linen, others in grubby blankets, others still semi- or stark-naked. Many wear strange charms and amulets tied about their necks: hare’s feet, elaborate wooden crosses, signs of the zodiac, and in many instances a large paper sign scrawled with lines of ‘ABRACADABRA’ in the formation of a diminishing triangle, smeared in dirt, as though testament to its uselessness.
To the side of the pit stands an open wooden cart attached to a weary horse. It is stacked high with around twenty bodies. There are two men with lit links (cone-shaped torches made from tar or pitch). One detaches the cart from the horse whilst the other man pulls it towards the cliff of the pit. You move in to take a closer look. If anyone throws you a suspicious glance or questions you, pretend you are one of the mourners who has travelled here clandestinely, under cover of night, to watch your loved one’s funeral.
Both men have now moved around to the back of the cart. They wheel it right over the precipice. Then in a swift movement they hoist it up and the bodies come tumbling out – ‘shot into the pit’ as a later writer puts it – and thud into the cold earth. The cartmen seem inured to the horror. One of them clambers back onto his horse, the other lighting his way, then they trundle off into the night. They have cartloads more dead to collect before the sun rises.
Behind you, beyond the mounds and trenches dug into the fields by the Parliamentarian forces during the Civil War, there is a new city to explore, stirring at the first streaks of dawn.
London is under a cloud of death. It is not the bustling, exuberant city you have visited in other time periods. Since May 1665, the Plague has been devouring parts of the extra-mural city; now, in late August, it has begun to sweep through the walled City itself. At the beginning of the summer, King Charles II and his court abandoned the capital; clergymen their flock; most physicians their patients; wealthier shopkeepers their customers; and the richer, their terrified servants. The schools, theatres and inns of Court are closed and the public mood, dejected. In July, nearly 6,000 deaths were attributed to the Plague, but in reality, probably closer to 10,000 people died. The scale of the slaughter is not unprecedented – the Black Death of 1348 killed a higher proportion of London’s population – but no one can remember a calamity of this magnitude. In mid-September, the number of city-wide plague deaths would peak at 7,165 in a single week, though again, the true figure was probably closer to 10,000 if not more.
The City is eerily silent and still. The air is laden with obnoxious seacoal fumes that are likely to make you cough and wretch – they certainly do other visitors. Tread carefully through the City’s labyrinth of streets, courts, alleys and churchyards; a single misstep could spell your untimely death: ‘so many of the fair sex and their offspring [have] perished by mischance’, laments the diarist John Evelyn, ‘from the ruggedness of the unequal streets’. Technically, each householder is responsible for paving the street outside their house, but this is far from people’s minds as the Plague sweeps through the city. Normally people walk as close to the wall as possible, so the cascading upper storeys shield them from the flying muck of chamber pots and rainwater – but no-one wants to get too close to anyone else, so you should walk in the middle of the street, near the central drain or kennel, swerving to avoid other pedestrians. The wooden posts marking the walkway at the edge of the street, you’ll notice, are plastered in scraps of paper advertising the ‘infallible’ miracle cures of quack doctors.
These are dangerous times. Much of the economic life of the city has ground to a painful halt; Samuel Pepys writes of ‘the lamentable moan of the poor seamen, that lie starving in the streets for lack of money’. There is the sense that the laws that normally govern society have been suspended: nurses thieve from and sometimes smother those entrusted to their care; goods are pilfered from warehouses with impunity; and the delirious dance naked in the streets, chanting. Outsiders will be treated with the utmost suspicion. You will be a sitting duck for the desperate and the destitute.
The solution? Find a white stick. Or failing that, any stick – rip one up from the side of the street if you have to – so long as it’s at least two feet long. This is a sign that you live in a house that has contained the plague; you may even have had it yourself and recovered – but people will be sure to give you a very wide berth. Failing that, you will have to do your best impression of a mad person, howling, screaming and dancing, as though delirious with infection – people will run a mile though an armed watchman might be sent to capture you.
A few more things to bear in mind. Whenever you hear the bells tolling for the death of the latest plague victim, you’ll notice old women in rags scurrying towards a cross-marked house carrying a red wand. These are the Searchers of the Dead. Do not go anywhere near them; they are paid around four pence to investigate each new death and report back to the parish clerk, so they have been poking around dead bodies. And of course do not touch anyone, kiss anyone, linger for too long in the rat-infested slums, or share a meal with anyone. Drink only coffee, chocolate or tea.
Try to stay calm. If you are unlucky enough to catch the plague, it is usually a good three days before buboes (painful black and blue swellings that typically appear in the groin and armpits) sprout and you start to feel unwell – by which point you’ll be safely back in the twenty-first century where the plague can be treated with antibiotics. Unless, that is, the bacteria infects your lungs or blood vessels instead of the lymph nodes, as it does in rarer cases. In which case, you’ll be burning with fever and coughing up blood or watching your limbs turn gangrenous in no time at all, dropping down dead perhaps within twenty-four hours. The death rate in these kinds of infections is almost 100 per cent. No one said time travelling was for the faint-hearted.
“Oh! Death! Death! Death!”: London’s Week of Hell
After seeing a corpse lying in an open coffin, tossed into the fields between Woolwich and Greenwich, Samuel Pepys deplores how ‘this disease [is] making us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs’. According to the heroic apothecary William Boghurst, it makes everyone ‘uncharitable, superstitious and cruel’. He belies the trend himself, happily visiting up to 40 plague victims a day, and living to tell the tale in his account of the Great Plague, Loimographia (a curious word, referring to a now-obsolete branch of science seeking to describe and further understanding of plagues; unlike many in the medical establishment, Boghurst does not believe that it has to be a death sentence). One eighteenth-century history of the Great Plague would echo these sentiments, claiming it ‘razed out [the] hearts’ of Londoners, alienating one from one another in their hour of greatest need.
In the week ending 31st July 1665, over 500 people will perish of the plague in the squalid streets of Cripplegate. At least, these are the recorded figures returned by the parish clerk in his weekly return for the city-wide Bills of Mortality, as conveyed by the Searchers. Published regularly from 1603 to tip off the rich about whether or not to stay in town, these tabulate the number of deaths for each parish in London and her extra-mural suburbs. Reading the Bills, it’s clear the largely illiterate, sometimes drunken Searchers have some very strange and, to us, alarming ideas about what kills people in mid-seventeenth-century London. Deaths are repeatedly attributed to ‘suddenly’, ‘teeth’, ‘affrighted’, ‘winde’, ‘blasted’, ‘sore mouth’, ‘planet’, ‘wolf’, ‘grief’, ‘lunatique’ and showing a strong hand each week the enigmatic ‘rising of the lights’ (which the OED takes to be a choking sensation in children arising from myriad various pulminory causes; lights was a colloquial term for lungs).
As you wind through the streets of a mournful City with your white stick, prepare to see neighbours going through the motions of chatting and gossiping but secretly eyeing each other for tokens of the plague – if they see the faintest spot or speckle, they will smile, end the conversation, and send for the Examiners. Brace yourself too for the hopeful faces of famished children bobbing up and down at windows as people in the street pass by, pretending not to have seen; the pained faces of mothers and fathers peering out through the crack in their doors as their houses are shut up for the obligatory forty-day period, at the end of which it’s doubtful if they will make it out alive; people holding up their fingers to ward off the devil as they walk past houses daubed with the red cross; swirls of thick smoke as householders fumigate their rooms with brimstone, pitch and charcoal; a dead woman lying on her side between mounds of festering vomit as her baby tries to suckle his mother’s breast while a watchman keeps guard in the street, staring ahead blankly and chewing tobacco.
But these are just impressionistic glimpses from the street. Even to begin to fathom the true horror of living in a plague-struck city, you have to imagine the unimaginable. Picture yourself as a father of five children, shut up inside your plague-infested house. One by one, you have watched all of your children die and now you must contemplate the prospect of offloading your wife onto the dead cart since buboes swelled under her armpits two hours’ ago. Your resources are depleted and there is no relying upon the parish relief funds. There is every chance that you yourself will starve to death – if the Plague doesn’t get you first.
Even for those whose houses are as yet uninfected, the experience of living through 1665 is a form of mental torture, leaving you cast adrift in an unpredictable and harrowing world. Samuel Pepys captures this feeling vividly when he laments, in his entry for September 14th 1665, ‘that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself; to hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams, to know how they did there is dead of the plague; and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last…and is now dead of the plague’. The previous month he mourned the death of ‘poor Will, that used to sell us ale at the Hall-door, his wife and three children died, all, I think, in a day’.
Chaos reigns. The physician Nathaniel Hodges, who distinguished himself by remaining in London unlike the bulk of his medical compatriots, gives a vivid account of ‘persons in their last agonies: in one room might be heard dying groans…and not far off…infants passed immediately from the womb to the grave…the infected run about staggering like drunken men, and fall and expire in the streets; while others lie half-dead and comatose, but never to be waked but by the last trumpet.’ Sometimes people will swing open their windows and just scream.“Oh! Death, Death, Death!” wails one woman in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Whether this is a straight lament, a summons, or a plea for mercy is not clear, quite possibly all three rolled into one.
The Folly of Confinement
Many of these scenes of despair flow from the government’s strictly-enforced and ill-advised policy of confinement. Under the terms of this ordinance, inherited from earlier plague epidemics, if the Examiners discover anyone exhibiting symptoms of the plague, their house is automatically shut up – along with everyone else in it – for a forty-day period. Armed watchmen, usually wielding halberds (a cross between a spear and an axe), are placed outside to guard the door preventing anyone escaping – one in the daytime and another at night. Watchmen are also issued with padlocks and bolts. Anyone found harbouring children from condemned households could be committed for trial. If they were sent to Newgate prison, this is a virtual death sentence in itself, as we shall see.
The policy is consonant with the idea that the plague is contagious rather than spread in miasmic air – proceeding from a ‘cosmic fart’ in the witty words of historian Liza Picard – but many people see no contradiction between the two, thinking that infected bodies and vapours can pollute the air. “I am sure it is in the air”, exclaim characters in A Journal of the Plague Year on discovering tokens of the plague; at one point, a family becomes infected via the stench of rotting corpses next door – but equally the idea it is spread by ‘fatal breath’, sweat and clothes runs through the narrative.
But most people you overhear in the streets will be just as concerned with metaphysical causes. Hardly anyone disputes it is the awful manifestation of a divine tirade, as presaged by a comet the year before. Quite what God is angry about – the licentiousness of Court, restoration of the Stuart dynasty (London’s last two major plague epidemics, in 1603 and 1625 had coincided with the accession of James I and Charles I), the general sinfulness of mankind or a harbinger of something even worse to come (next year has ‘666’ in it, suggestive of the antichrist) is very much up to the individual. In his Account of the Great Plague of London, apothecary William Boghurst includes a little section on preventative measures. It begins, ‘First. All sins in general…lust, pride, whoredom, wantoness, and prophaneness; for the Plague hath been a common judgement upon these exorbitances’ – irrefutable proof, if any were needed, that the worlds of science and religion were inextricably intertwined in the seventeenth century (it is only later that he moves on to practical, medical advice).
London is alive with mournful news and rumour: ‘so many sad stories overheard as I walk’, recalls Pepys, ‘everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that’. In the marketplaces and taverns, customers like to entertain themselves with stories – many of them, surely, apocryphal – of daring escapes, some of which, passed down by oral tradition, end up Defoe’s Journal. Expect to hear tales of confined families boring through the flimsy wattle walls into side alleys and escaping; of cunning householders appearing in top-floor windows and lowering a noosed rope onto the watchman’s neck, pulling tight and threatening to hang him in mid-air unless he unlocks the door. Defoe tells a story of one man who went so far as to blow up his watchman with gunpowder, leaving him writhing in agony on the street as he and his family fled into the night.
The less imaginative – or more scrupulous – find themselves barricaded inside their own houses. Defoe provides some harrowing tales of what could become of them. We read of the wife of an East Smithfield tradesman who had the dire misfortune of going into labour infected with the plague, which must have been common enough. Her husband, not being allowed out, was unable to get a midwife or nurse – two of his servants, who might have been able to help, had fled. His only option was to shout his plight in the streets – but the only person who took any notice of him was a watchman, who made a vague promise to send a nurse in the morning. So the husband returned to his wife ‘with his heart broke’ and attempted to deliver the child himself. ‘He brought the child dead into the world; and his wife in about an hour died in his arms, where he held her dead body fast till the morning, when the watchman came and brought the nurse as he had promised.’ Within a few hours, he had departed this world too – not of plague but a broken heart, ‘sunk under the weight of his grief’.
We hear of sufferers who are so suicidally delirious they have to be tied to their beds. One who managed to break free and throw himself out of a window; another who ‘had no option’ but to set fire to his bed with a bedside candle. There are lurid reports too of murderous nurses (‘ugly, unwholesome hags’ according to one source), thieving searchers, and fleecing watchmen, all playing their part in the urban landscape of nightmare.
Just about anyone who gives it much thought agrees that the policy of confinement is cruel and unjust. William Boghurst has a blunt way of describing it –‘murder’. How, he despairs, could the incarceration of up to two dozen healthy people with one plague victim be anything other? Parishes’ poor relief funds are depleted and if families don’t have the money to pay the watchmen to purchase essentials like bread, they may starve.The policy is further misguided, he reasons, since it compels the ‘walking destroyers’ to flee, further spreading the plague.
Of all the plague portrayers Daniel Defoe is a lone voice in supporting the policy of confinement, conceding that it was ‘a very cruel and unchristian method, and the poor people made bitter lamentations’ but concluding that ‘it was a public good that justified the private mischief’. In its defence, he cites many instances of plague sufferers, in their delusion, fleeing from their houses and running amok through the city, kissing so to deliberately infect passers-by, plunging into the Thames, howling lamentations, and shooting themselves in a frenzy of despair.
Such is the stuff of brilliant drama – it’s worth remembering that for all its aspirations to verisimilitude and journalistic rigour, Defoe’s Journal is a fictional account written more than fifty years later – and the genuine eye-witness accounts don’t really corroborate this part of his evocation. At the height of the plague, when 10,000 people were dying each week, Pepys mentions zombie-like people who look like they had ‘taken leave of the world’ but no careering madmen.
What is desperately needed, instead of confinement, is to send any infected parties to a pest house, as in Amsterdam and other plague-struck European cities, (though infected rodents – rats, or rather their fleas, were the primary carriers of the plague – would remain). In the pest houses, plague sufferers are tended to by expert physicians. But London only has a handful of pest houses – in Marylebone (built for the poor and fevered parish of St Giles-in-the-fields), Finsbury Fields and Westminster, for instance. But these aren’t free and, with a low capacity, are generally the resort of servants returning to their master’s house after running errands with tokens of the plague.
So, how does the disease progress? Between three to five days after being bitten by a flea carrying the bacteria, you can expect buboes to appear in the groin, under the armpits, or in the crevices of the neck. Buboes are about the size of nutmegs or golf balls and almost as hard, full of pus and dead blood. They are usually red, purple or black-blue and it is chilling to see such a thing protruding from people’s necks like diseased testicles – even worse to feel one on your own neck. You will also experience a fever and shivers, aching joints, excruciating headaches, the decomposition of the skin whilst still alive, vomiting, delirium, and coma. Then, usually death (whilst it is possible to recover from the plague, it’s unclear how many people do, and most sources emphasize that people don’t in general).
The Howling Hour and the Dead Cart
The night is hot and sticky. You open the window. You can barely make anything out. In the warmer months, there is no street lighting. Only on moonless winter nights are householders obliged to light a candle in a horn lantern by their front door between twilight and the tolling of the curfew bells at 9pm, supposedly lighting people home from the ale-houses, taverns and workshops.
But tonight, apart from the grudging gleam of a faint crescent moon, it is almost pitch-black. You lie down, close your eyes, and try to block out all the horror that you have seen today.
That’s when the screaming begins.
It’s not just the odd cry but prolonged lamentations of bottomless woe in the face of an invisible invading force (as Albert Camus would portray a later pestilence attacking an Algerian city in La Peste (1947)). The ‘loud and lamentable cries’, recalls the narrator in Defoe’s Journal, ‘pierce the very heart to think of, especially when it was to be considered, that the same dreadful scourge might be expected every moment to seize upon ourselves’.
Eventually, though, the cacophony dies down and despite the odd wail, most of the inhabitants of nearby houses finally succumb to a night’s – or eternity’s – sleep. You are just beginning to drift off when a new note insinuates itself into the soundscape of despair. It’s barely perceptible at first – four syllables separated by a brief caesura – like the horn of a ship as it pulls into harbour. Now it sounds fainter, now louder, now fainter again, now much louder and it is accompanied by the grinding of wooden wheels on cobbles. It’s only when it reaches the bottom of your street that you hear the four words clearly:
“Bring out your dead!”
“Bring out your dead!”
Put your clothes on quick. The dead cart is here.
About half-way down the street, you can just make out what seems to be a small ball of fire suspended in the air. It illuminates the eyes and snout of a beast. Cross the road, hunch into your cloak, and walk past the cart. Follow it at a discrete distance.
As you draw nearer, you’ll see a man, link in hand, driving a large, open four-wheeled cart. Another man follows, ringing a bell and shouting “Bring out your dead!” in jaded tones. It is piled high with bodies. Some are all-but naked.
A banging comes from one of the upper-storey windows of a house. The casement windows fling open, and a figure appears. “Here!”, he shouts, “my poor wife”.
The dead cart rumbles to a grudging halt. The figure in the window pushes out a shrouded lump tied to a rope. It dangles in the air for a moment, then lurches downwards as the man in the window lowers her incrementally, in silence. The bell man moves to receive the dead wife. “May God have mercy on your soul”, he shouts to the bereaved husband, then stacks her up on the cart, not wanting to handle her for any longer than is absolutely necessary. There is to be no decent burial; the deadcart men don’t even both to enquire after the identity of their latest passenger. It is too much for the man in the window to bear. He slams shut the casements and vanishes. The bellman waits a few moments and then, after shooting a shifty glance towards the window, rifles through the corpse’s shroud to see if there any nice clothes or valuables to strip away. There aren’t.
The cart rumbles on through winding streets by the flame of the link, casting long shadows against the timbered walls of houses, towards the great plague pit at Finsbury Fields. Only very rarely are bodies lowered down on a rope. More usually, members of a stricken household lay out their dead in the street, or prop up corpses against their front door ready for collection. You notice that sometimes the cart stops and the bellman disappears into a narrow side-street or alley. Sometimes he reappears with a corpse under his arm or in a wheelbarrow, dragging its feet on the cobbles; many of the alleys are too narrow for the dead cart to squeeze through.
In the early stages of the Great Plague, victims were afforded proper – if rushed – funerals and burials in the churchyards of the city. But by now the parish burial grounds are brimful with bodies and in the hardest-hit areas it would be impossible for funerals to keep pace with the death-rate, even if most of the clergy hadn’t run for the hills at the first sign of God’s wrath. So gravediggers have been employed to dig vast holes in peripheral parts of London, to serve as mass graves or plague pits, as you have seen. To prevent further infection, both the Lord Mayor in the City and George Monck, the Duke of Albemarle, one of the very few statesmen left in the city, who is charged with governing the City of Westminster, have decreed that bodies must be collected each night by the deadcart men. Many are former servants, abandoned and left to fend for themselves by their masters, and so unable to turn down this dangerous and disturbing job.
And it is disturbing. Sometimes household members all die in quick succession, meaning that no-one is alerted to take away the bodies until the overwhelming stench of death seeps through the thin wattle-and-daub walls into neighbours’ nostrils. It is then down to the dead cart men to enter the deathly premises and lug these badly decayed bodies onto their carts.
Londoners delight in telling each other tales of the dead cart. Daniel Defoe crystallises one version of the poor piper story in his Journal of the Plague Year, as told by the ‘honest’ undersexton of the parish of St Stephen, Coleman Street, going out of his way to vouch for the credibility of the story.
The poor piper was a local celebrity who would roam the streets each night, playing music at people’s doors. He would usually be invited in to some public house to sing and pipe and talk foolishly for his supper and ale. As the plague sunk its teeth into London, times were tough for the merry piper. Growing increasingly thin, whenever people asked him how he went, he always joked that the dead cart had not taken him yet – so well! – but it had promised to call for him next week. One night, he overindulged in a pub in Coleman Street and was laid down, fast asleep, on top of a stall by a house in a street near London Wall towards Cripplegate. Later that night, hearing the bell signalling the approach of the dead cart, some neighbours emerged with a corpse and, assuming the piper had been laid out for burial, placed the body next to his. Both were scooped up and heaped onto the cart. It was only after the cart had reached the vast plague pit at Mount Mill, off Goswell Road towards Islington, that the piper awoke from his slumber and poked his head out between the stinking limbs of the dead.
“Hey! Where am I?”, he asks, chilling the cartmen to the bone.
“Who are you?” whispered one.
“I am the poor piper. Where am I?”
“Where are you?”, asked the under-sexton in disbelief, “why, you are in the dead-cart, and we are going to bury you.”
“But I ain’t dead though, am I?” replied the piper to a chorus of nervous laughter.
Another version of the story has the piper literally piping up as the cart is trundling along, sending the bearers flying into the backstreets, thinking the devil was in the cart. Whatever the variation, this is a cheerful story about a man defying death; a vent, perhaps, for Londoners’ deepest fears.
Of course doing the nightly dead-cart run exposed the bearers to a high risk of contracting the plague and although they are renowned for their steeliness, it comes as no surprise that many died on the job, leaving the stacked-up bodies at the mercy of driverless horses, who might suddenly break into a gallop, capsizing the cart and spilling the bodies into the street. Other accounts tell of the bearers of the dead-cart dropping down dead at the rim of the plague pit and being thrown in along with their charges, in a sort of macabre pantomime.
As the cart reaches the end of Chiswell Street, the stench of death curls around you like a physical presence, drawing you towards the dreadful lantern-framed pit in Finsbury Fields where dead bodies are ‘piled up like faggots in a stack’, as the bishop Joseph Hall put it, ‘for the society of their future resurrection’. In the hellscape of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, it is into this pit that many men and women hurl themselves delirious, half-naked and frothing at the mouth, an attempt to seize back one last moment of autonomy in the face an encroaching death. Many of the Cripplegate poor ‘came and threw themselves in, and expired there, before they threw any earth upon them; and that when they came to bury others and found them there, they were quite dead, though not cold.’
No doubt you have no wish to relive the horror of the pit.
Beat a path back to your inn, and try to get some sleep. We’ll have a lighter start tomorrow, I promise.
The Great Dog Massacre
Passing the motionless windmill of Whitechapel facing onto a view of green fields, broken only by the eastern hamlets of Stepney and Bow, make your way back to the City. Go through Aldgate – Old Gate, which, though much repaired, once led to the thatched villas, lofty temples, and wine-kissed gardens of Londinium. Today it leads into a far smellier and less sanitised city. On your right is the Church of St Boltoph-without-Aldgate. You expect to hear, at any moment, the dread peals of the bells, marking the demise of the latest victim of the plague. But all is quiet. The sun rides high in the sky and splinters of light cobble Old Jewry in front of you, making a spangled path towards the turrets of the Tower which looms in the distance and, beyond, the smoke-belching tanneries of Southwark.
From around the corner, you hear a terrified yelp. You pelt forward. An emaciated dog cowers beneath the bulging storey of a timber-framed house. It catches sight of you, head shooting up. Desperation swells in its eyes.
Two men creep forwards co-cooing the creature, promising clichéd inducements – bones, din-dins and pussy cats – in sickly-sweet voices. One holds a club; the other, a noose. The mutt is having none of it. He scans the perimeter but finds himself trapped by the encroaching men. On the dog’s right is his worst nightmare, a wheelbarrow piled high with the corpses of dead and dying dogs, some pawing the air limply. It strikes you as a bestial parody of the dead cart.
The man with the noose lurches forward and, in one efficient movement, catches the dog’s neck. He tightens it. The dog flips and writhes like a fish. The other man steps forward. He produces the club, takes aim, then bludgeons the dog’s skull as though hammering a tent-peg into frosty earth. Specks of blood spray onto his black gown. That done, his lackey scoops up the whimpering animal and adds him to the top of the wobbling mound of dogs. Wiping his hands on a greasy cloth, he nods to his canine-killing confrère and off they go, pushing the stinking wheelbarrow towards the Thames, whistling.
You have just witnessed one sorry episode in the Great Dog Massacre of 1665. During the course of the Great Plague, Defoe reckoned that some 40,000 dogs were slaughtered. His figure is an estimate but contemporary sources show that the Chamberlain of the City received invoices for the killing of over 4,000 dogs and the parish of St Margaret’s, Westminster for the burial of 353 dogs, so the scale of the slaughter all over the city is not in question. One particularly nasty magistrate described the hated Quakers as ‘like dogs in time of plague. They are to be killed as they go up and down the streets, that they do not infect’.
It’s not a good time for cats either, and In theory, cats, rabbits, pigs and pigeons were are earmarked for destruction too but in reality, they were never hunted down and killed as systematically as dogs, which were either bludgeoned to death, as you’ve seen, or fed poisoned meat – sometimes, in a particularly gruesome touch, the toxic corpses of other dogs. Whilst some dog corpses are carted off to the Thames or the Fleet to pollute it yet further, many others are simply left in the kennel in the middle of the street where they swell in the heat and eventually burst, swarming with flies and teeming with worms. On 5th July 1665, specially-designated ‘rakers’ are ordered to clear the streets of dead dogs. Any dog-killer found favouring a particular dog can be imprisoned (amounting to a near-certain death sentence during outbreaks of the plague).
The reasons for singling out dogs for slaughter are many and manifold. It is believed that dog fur is a magnet for the ‘effluvia or infectious steams’ of infected bodies, therefore dogs spread the plague as they scavenge about the streets. If dog and cat fur had actually been a conducive breeding ground for plague-carrying fleas then there might have been some unwitting merit to the policy but, as it stands, though they can catch the plague, dogs and cats are generally weak and ineffectual carriers. Rats, which were the ultimate carriers vectors of the plague bacterium, were viewed as a nuisance – Defoe notes that people tried to poison them along with mice in their homes – but little more. Ironically, in fact, the slaughter of their natural predators – starving cats and dogs – merely strengthened the resilience of the Plague.
Another current of thought, still alive in the Middle East today, casts dogs as greedy, idle, lustful and evil. “Greedy as a dog” and “idle as a dog” were sayings and a “dog” of course is a term of abuse for women. Thomas More, quoting the Book of Proverbs, likened Protestant heretics to ‘a dog returning to his vomit’ and the month of August was widely understood to be the most unhealthy time of year, attributable to the malignant influence of the Dog Star, which is prominent in August. Both Pepys and Defoe believe that up to 10,000 people were dying each week in the dog days of August, 1665. By massacring dogs in their thousands, Londoners were perhaps trying to purge themselves of their bestial side at a time when they believed they were being punished for this very vice by God, as Mark Jenner argues.
There is a connection, too, between dogs and deliriousness; more than once Defoe compares the frenzied victims of the plague to people who have been bitten by a mad dog, offering ‘all sorts of violence to those they met, even just as a mad dog runs on and bites at every one he meets’. No doubt the massacre had a slightly different meaning for each Londoner but whatever their interpretation, one thing is clear: 1665 is not a good time to be a dog.
Your mournful tour of a plague-struck city is nearly complete. As a denouement, it is only fitting that we visit the starting point of a further cataclysm that rocked London in the 1660s. Within the walled City at least, it eviscerated much of the cramped, squalid environment which had been such an effective breeding ground for the Rattus rattus species and their cargo of deadly fleas.
The Plague was not, as is commonly thought, eviscerated by the Great Fire of London — that inflagration predominantly destroyed the City which, by the 1660s, contained only a quarter of London’s population. It is true to say, however, that later outbreaks of the bubonic/pneumonic/septicemic plague were markedly less virulent, and no more is heard about this appalling form of death from the eighteenth century onwards. Theories range wildly as to why this was and, being an historian, to attempt to adjudicate between them would be a fool’s errand indeed.
Dr Matthew Green is the author of the acclaimed book London: A Travel Guide Through Time, which has been described by the Londonist as “easily the best social history of London for a decade” and by the Telegraph as “fascinating”. Matthew also writes historical features for the Guardian and the Financial Times, among others, and has featured in many TV documentaries. He’s the founder of Unreal City Audio, which produces immersive tours of historic London, and has just finished writing Shadowlands, on Britain’s Lost Cities, Ghost Towns and Vanished Villages, to be published by Faber in 2021.