Pandemics – We’ve Been Here Before



During the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in the summer of 1665, people were just as keen to know casualty figures as we are today. By mid July over a thousand deaths a week were reported on handbills that were stuck up in public places to warn people that the plague was growing. The bill of mortality below, covering a week in September, recorded 7,165 plague victims. Just as interesting are the other causes listed as well. Several illustrate the high infant mortality at the time; 18 chrisomes, or infants who died in the first month of life; 121 teeth, or infants who died when still teething. Fifteen people died from worms or parasites in the body. 42 women died in childbed, which was a bacterial infection after giving birth. 101 people succumbed to spotted fever (probably typhus). Rising of the lights was probably illness characterized by a hoarse cough or difficulty breathing so could have been asthma or pneumonia. Some of the other causes of death were strange indeed!

In spite of being over 350 years ago, the authorities reacted to the Great Plague of 1665-6 in ways remarkably similar to the measures in place to deal with the coronavirus today. Even back then they realised that isolation and lockdown were key policies.

The Great Plague affected many parts of the country but London was particularly badly hit with 68,596 deaths recorded – about 15% of the population. DNA from victims found during the building of London’s Crossrail, tell us it was a form of bubonic plague. Charles II and his courtiers left in July for Hampton Court and then Oxford. Many other people who could, including most doctors, lawyers and merchants, fled the city. As now, Parliament and other public institutions were suspended.

The Government published by Royal Command ‘RULES AND ORDERS’ to be enforced by all Justices of the Peace and other officials aimed at stopping the spread of the disease.

  • Clearly there was concern about public gatherings as ‘no more Alehouses be licensed than are absolutely necessary’ and strangers entering towns had to have a certificate of health.
  • It was ordered that no unwholesome food including stinking meats and fish could be sold.
  • No swine, dogs, cats or tame pigeons were permitted to pass up and down in the streets.
  • Isolation was taken seriously with some people housed in remote huts ‘for the preservation of the rest of the family.’ Officials were ordered to investigate anyone with plague symptoms like swellings under the ears or armpits, or upon the groin and even various blemishes or spots on the breast or back, commonly called tokens. The house involved was then shut up for 40 days with warnings i.e. a Red Cross and a sign saying ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ in capital letters on the front door. Wardens were appointed to bring them necessities and to keep them from conversing with others. After 40 days a Red Cross was replaced with a White Cross put onto the door for a further 20 days and no stranger or lodger was allowed to enter until this period ended. Before the restrictions were lifted houses of victims had to ‘be well Fumed, Washed and Whited all over within with Lime’ and it was not permitted to remove any clothes, or household items into any other house, for at least three months.
  • A special poor rate was levied to help the lower classes.
  • Some people, like doctors and surgeons were allowed to break lock down rules.
  • There were to be no fairs or trade with other countries – causing economic disruption and job loss.
  • Public prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays were to be strictly observed.


AND SO IT ENDED… Colder weather in the Autumn and Winter of 1665 began to kill the rats and fleas carrying the disease and the plague began to disappear. The population of London recovered surprisingly quickly and things soon got back to normal. The King returned and there was a general mood of celebration with a sudden rise in the number of marriages and births. Lord Clarendon, the Lord Chancellor, stated “… the streets were as full, the Exchange as much crowded, the people in all places as numerous as they had ever been seen.’


(Editor’s note

An earlier event of bubonic plague ‘The Black Death’,  in the 14th C, was the only period in the history of mankind where the global population declined.)