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The Plague and Great Fire of London page 2


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Lucky charms and magic philtres, bottles of plague water (as used, of course, by the nobility) found a ready sale. These smooth-tongued rogues could even induce the poor and simple to wear on a cord around their necks the most bizarre of all lucky mascots - a dried toad!

Quack doctors were another evil of the terror. They appeared and flourished everywhere, plastered the walls of shops and houses and the posts at street corners with their notices, dispensed worthless medicine from their so-called surgeries. Some degrees of blame for this must be attached to the genuine doctors, many of whom had made a cowardly exit from London, pleading that they had gone with their patients. Magistrates, clergy and others in responsible positions joined in this sorry retreat, but it is good to record that so many others, from the Lord Mayor downwards, remained at the post of duty and did their best to see that the hungry were fed and that the poor were at least given the prescriptions of the best possible remedies known to the then not very advanced science of medicine.

That so many of the people were swindled and deluded was folly and madness, but it was a facet of the city's ordeal. The victims of the knaves were ultimately found dead, many of them, beside them the remains of the potions that were as ineffective as water. They were carried from their homes, thrown on to the dead carts and tipped into the pits still wearing the charms that could bring them neither luck nor safety.

A strange phenomenon of the times was the appearance of weird "prophets," roaming the streets by day and by night. They cried their message that the wrath of God was upon the people, that the plague was His vengeance for their sins, that they must abandon hope, that all who dwelt in the city of lust and greed would perish from the earth. One such spectacular figure, a ragged burlesque of John the Baptist, his eyes lit with the hot glow of fanaticism, half naked in a single garment, his long, matted hair straggling over his thin shoulders, cried everlastingly a home-made text: "And there shall be no living left to bury the dead." His shouts mingled with the cries of the dead cart men, with the echoes of occasional screams from stricken homes, and made the night even more repelling.

Among usually normal people, too, there were strange declarations. There were those who claimed to have seen in the heavens mystic stars. Some professed to have seen a sword of atonement in the sky, its fiery blade thrust towards the city. Others talked in whispers of phantoms that crept amid the night shadows of the streets, that laughed on the edge of the dead pits.

Although there was a nine o'clock curfew for the taverns, many still found ample time in which to draw courage and forgetfulness from the barrel, sometimes returning from a revel on the very brink of the plague precipice to find a wife a son, a brother already dead - even buried.

In vivid contrast was a wave of religious fervour. Before the terror reached its zenith, before Londoners shunned the proximity of each other's company as much as possible, the places of worship were crowded. At several of those churches abandoned by their clergy, nonconformist and lay preachers took to the pulpits. Their sermons were richly invested with rebuke and threat. From the point of view of the fervid evangelist the plague was indeed a heaven-sent lesson in the puny mortality of man, and he did not spare his congregation.

Curious scenes were witnessed in the old St. Paul's Cathedral. Here the long aisle was known as Paul's Walk, and a more remarkable promenade can never have existed. In normal times the aisle was edged with stalls for the sale of ribbons, laces and other fancy articles, and was a popular and established rendezvous for a gossip and a stroll. With the coming of the plague the stalls closed, the fineries vanished, the idle chatter was subdued. Instead, all through the day there was a mournful and hushed parade of those seeking news of the crisis.

The poorer classes, from whom the bulk of the plague's victims were drawn, exhibited a queer stoicism, a dull sort of courage, even when the epidemic was at its height. They took work when they could get it, even with the dead carts and at the pits. The women went bravely forth in search of food and, when their men were claimed by the scourge, were courageous in the defence and care of their families.

Sometimes there was even laughter, a little hollow, but a wonderful release of pent-up emotion. Perhaps the best of the few jokes of the plague period was that of the poor blind piper, drunk and insensible, who was picked up for dead by a passing cart, and scared the life out of the watchmen by recovering consciousness and skirling His pipes on the very brink of the pit.

Speaking of escapes from death, many of the men of London had reason to thank one evil for saving them from another. At this time England was at extreme loggerheads with the Dutch, and in the early stages of the plague the "press gangs" continued to round up recruits for the fleet around and about the Thames waterside. Many wives and children saw the men dragged forcibly into the service of their king and country; many never saw each other again. Either the men were killed in engagements at sea, or on their return found that their families had been wiped out.

For the merchant ships, of course, there was nothing but inactivity. Foreign trade was dead. The trading nations of Europe were terrified of even the sight of an English ship, and the ports of France, Spain, Italy and other erstwhile customers were closed to us. They feared our goods as much as they feared contact with our men; woollen commodities, notorious agents of infection, were particularly feared. The extent of the plague in England was magnified out of all proportion by foreign countries; in fact, in the Mediterranean it was believed that the land was in danger of extinction.

The history of the Great Plague is very harrowing. In such a disaster there is little, if anything, to illumine the gloom, no spark of the heroism or the personal sacrifice that is so often inseparable from earthquake or shipwreck. The plague was just one long, vast, consuming wave of death in one of the filthiest of its guises.

It is a mercy that starvation was not added to the terror, or the consequences would have been even more calamitous. As it was, it destroyed a third of London's population.

Every heart in the capital lifted when there were signs that the terror was abating. Although the plague lingered on into 1666, it had spent its fury. Gradually the toll of life sank to a few hundreds, to scores. It was not long before those hideous pits were closed for ever. The King and his Court returned to town. Traffic ran over the grass-grown streets, the wheels of commerce moved again, the shops reopened, the shipping in the Thames was released. Houses were white-washed, and huge bonfires were lit to destroy everything that might still carry infection. Thanksgiving services were held, and but for the grief of the bereaved, now felt in its reality, London became almost its normal self again.

Then, on the crest Of the rejoicing - on September 2, 1666 - came another devastating blow to shake and terrify London. As though Providence were determined on a colossal purge of the city that had known so dread a pestilence, there came the mighty Fire of London to sweep masses of it away, to destroy in flames its breeding ground, so that it should never happen again.

The first act in this new drama to stagger the world was set in the dead of night. Londoners who had gone to bed, content that on the morrow they would know the refreshing peace of the Sabbath, awoke suddenly as to a nightmare, to strange cries and clamouring in the streets. Rushing to their windows, they saw against the dark sky a crimson banner of flame. Hypnotised, they saw it lift and grow with the minutes. At first there were many who believed jt to be some strange new visitation more terrible than the plague. But soon even the most imaginative knew it for what it really was - a Titanic outbreak of fire.

The Great Fire of London began in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, not far from London Bridge. Nearly all of wood, old, dry and rotten, the first houses burnt with ease and fury, and a pile of hay and straw in the yard of the nearby Star Inn made deadly fuel for the blaze. It was not long before entire streets were on fire, and the flames, lashed and driven by a fierce easterly wind, licked and curled their way in the direction of the heart of the city. Pudding Lane was gutted, and Thames Street, with its packed warehouses - here was coal and tar, spirits and oil, a veritable bonfire - was quickly a furnace. The conflagration could be seen for miles around. All London was astir, fascinated, awed.

Homes were evacuated by rich and poor, furniture thrown from doors and windows into the streets as the flaming invader advanced, an indefatigable foe, giving no quarter. All through that Sunday the fire raged, swept even as far as Gannon Street. When darkness fell again the holocaust was frightening. Already the destruction of the city was predicted. Thousands were by this time homeless, and had begun to camp in the nearest fields. The crude fire-fighting apparatus of the period was impotent against such angry sheets of fire; the water machines of London Bridge were destroyed with the houses on it.

On the Monday Gracechurch Street, Lombard Street and a part of Fenchurch Street were destroyed, Cornhill was invaded, and the flames hissed and tore their way through the Royal Exchange, the pride of the merchant princes. By nightfall Cheapside was in peril. The hearts of Londoners were heavy. This furnace was the capital that nothing now could save. It was home, it was tradition, it was history - and it was to be no more.

By Tuesday the fire had travelled as far west as St. Dunstan's in Fleet Street. It devoured the ancient oaken timbers of the Guildhall, and attacked St. Paul's. The scaffolding around the cathedral walls - it was at that time being renovated - fed the flames. It were as though the noble building had been prepared as a burnt offering. The great roof caught, and the melting lead fell in a cascade of sparkling golden rain. The bricks became almost red hot, the interior was an inferno. When finally the vast span of roof crashed, there rose a fountain of sparks and flame that could be seen in the countryside for miles around..

On the Wednesday morning a vast canopy of smoke hung suspended over London and hid the sun. The wind had lessened, the flames were subdued. Men from the dockyards had gained control of the fire by blowing great gaps in house property with gunpowder, an operation carried out by order of the King and superintended in person by the Duke of York.

Over 13,000 houses and nearly 100 churches were destroyed. The cost of a new St. Paul's alone was to be 2,000,000. Other ruins included the Guildhall, the Royal Exchange, the Customs House, the Justice House, the Grey Friars Church, four prisons, fifty halls belonging to the City Companies, four gates and four bridges. Precious books and documents and rich merchandise were lost. The entire damage was estimated at 10,730,500, for those days a tremendous sum of money.

Over 200,000 were homeless. Many families who had lost their breadwinner in the plague now lost even their humble belongings in the fire. The king led in the distribution of food. Rough huts were erected at Moorfields and towards Highgate. The business of the city was conducted from temporary premises in the West End. Shopkeepers took premises in the Covent Garden and neighbouring areas, and many never again returned to the city.

The causes of the fire, and its extent, were argued out. And they were many. The people themselves were blamed for taking to flight instead of remaining to defend their homes. The early morning hour at which the outbreak occurred - about a a.m. - the strong east wind, the dry summer, the closeness of the timbered houses in the narrow streets, the inflammable commodities in the warehouses, the failure of the water supply at London Bridge - these things also were blamed.

But the Londoners were not pacified by such findings. They declared that the ruin of their city was the work of foreigners. Several Dutchmen and Frenchmen were arrested on suspicion of arson, but the charges against them fell to the ground. Later the people found an ideal scapegoat in Robert Hubert, a native of Rouen, who confessed that he had started the fire by pushing a fire-ball through the window of the house in Pudding Lane. This house he identified when taken there by the authorities. His story, however, was a mass of contradictions; a ship's captain declared that Hubert had not landed in England until after the fire, and many were of the opinion that the man was mad. Nevertheless, he was hanged.

Whatever the cause, the Great Fire of London was a providential cleanser. It destroyed for ever the putrefaction that was the legacy of the Great Plague. From its ashes arose a new and better London, one of the few abiding compensations of calamity.

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