The Great Plague


The Great Plague – Full Documentary


The Great Plague, lasting from 1665 to 1666, was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England. It happened within the centuries-long time period of the Second Pandemic, an extended period of intermittent bubonic plague epidemics which began in Europe in 1347, the first year of the Black Death, an outbreak which included other forms such as pneumonic plague, and lasted until 1750.

The Great Plague killed an estimated 100,000 people—almost a quarter of London’s population—in 18 months. The plague was caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which is usually transmitted through the bite of an infected rat flea.

In order to judge the severity of an epidemic, it is first necessary to know how big the population was in which it occurred. There was no official census of the population to provide this figure, and the best contemporary count comes from the work of John Graunt (1620–1674), who was one of the earliest Fellows of the Royal Society and one of the first demographers, bringing a scientific approach to the collection of statistics. In 1662, he estimated that 384,000 people lived in the City of London, the Liberties, Westminster and the out-parishes, based on figures in the bills of mortality published each week in the capital. These different districts with different administrations constituted the officially recognised extent of London as a whole. In 1665, he revised his estimate to ‘not above 460,000’. Other contemporaries put the figure higher, (the French Ambassador, for example, suggested 600,000) but with no mathematical basis to support their estimates. The next largest city in the kingdom was Norwich, with a population of 30,000.

Searchers would typically learn about a death either from the local sexton who had been asked to dig a grave, or from the tolling of a church bell. Anyone who did not report a death to their local church, such as Quakers, Anabaptists, other non-Anglican Christians or Jews, frequently did not get included in the official records. Searchers reported to the Parish Clerk, who made a return each week to the Company of Parish Clerks in Brode Lane. Figures were then passed to the Lord Mayor and then to the Minister of State once plague became a matter of national concern The reported figures were used to compile the Bills of Mortality, which listed total deaths in each parish and whether by plague. The system of Searchers to report the cause of death continued until 1836.

The 1665–66 epidemic was on a far smaller scale than the earlier Black Death pandemic; it was remembered afterwards as the “great” plague mainly because it was the last widespread outbreak of bubonic plague in England during the 400-year timespan of the Second Pandemic.

Reports of plague around Europe began to reach England in the 1660s, causing the Privy Council to consider what steps might be taken to prevent it crossing to England. Quarantining of ships had been used during previous outbreaks and was again introduced for ships coming to London in November 1663, following outbreaks in Amsterdam and Hamburg. Two naval ships were assigned to intercept any vessels entering the Thames estuary. Ships from infected ports were required to moor at Hole Haven on Canvey Island for a period of 30 days before being allowed to travel upriver. Ships from ports free of plague or completing their quarantine were given a certificate of health and allowed to travel on. A second inspection line was established between the forts on opposite banks of the Thames at Tilbury and Gravesend with instructions only to pass ships with a certificate.

The duration of quarantine was increased to forty days in May 1664 as the continental plague worsened, and the areas subject to quarantine changed with the news of the spread of plague to include all of Holland, Zeeland and Friesland (all regions of the Dutch Republic), although restrictions on Hamburg were removed in November. Quarantine measures against ships coming from the Dutch Republic were put in place in 29 other ports from May, commencing with Great Yarmouth. The Dutch ambassador objected at the constraint of trade with his country, but England responded that it had been one of the last countries introducing such restrictions. Regulations were enforced quite strictly, so that people or houses where voyagers had come ashore without serving their quarantine were also subjected to 40 days quarantine.

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