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The Plague and Great Fire of London

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Never in its island story has Britain known disaster more relentless and devastating than the Great Plague and Fire of London in 1665-6. It was an era of terror and destruction unique in the history of the great cities of the world. The plague took toll of over 100,000 lives. The fire raged for three nights and days, raked over 13,000 houses, devoured five-sixths of the entire city. Yet although this terrible conflagration drove the people from their homes, although it destroyed St. Paul's Cathedral and the city's monuments and historic buildings, it was a timely catastrophe, wiping out for ever the filthy hovels that had been so rich a breeding ground for the plague, and made possible a cleaner, healthier and more spacious London.

At the onset of the Great Plague London was enjoying a period of comparative prosperity. Charles II. had been for five years on a restored Throne. Apart from spasmodic sea battles with the Dutch the country was at peace. London, that had been drained of men and money for the wars, stripped of fashion's elegance and glow, was gay and crowded and active again, Business flourished, trade filled the Thames with shipping, the nobility shone again at a brilliant Court.

The coming of the pestilence worked a grim transformation. Within a few months London became a place of fantastic days and nights, a place from which those of wealth and position fled. But the vast bulk of the populace remained to suffer, to die, to witness the travail of their city. Any stampede by the poorer citizens was stopped both by the authorities refusing them clean bills of health, or by the scared and angry people of the neighbouring towns, hamlets and villages driving them back at the point of the pitchfork. Some, already stricken with the plague before reaching the open country, died miserably and alone in fields and under hedgerows. The bones of many such were discovered years afterwards.

The life of London seemed to come to a standstill. Grass grew between the cobbles of the busy streets, from Westminster to St. Paul's, from the Exchange to Whitechapel.

Great pits yawned open to receive the dead. Bodies lay on the footpaths where they had fallen, until with the darkness came shadowy, cloaked scavengers to bear them away to the quicklime of a communal grave. Shops, warehouses and offices were closed. Only food was bought and sold. There was little work and few wages. Except for their savings, if any, and for charity and relief, the workers were left destitute. The quays were deserted; only the creak of ropes disturbed the silence of the Pool, where the ships lay idle. The doors and windows of deserted homes swung loosely open on their hinges.

Entire families vanished, wiped out from grandparent to infant in arms, their homes empty and desolate, their possessions unclaimed, not even a known grave to mark life's exit. Across the city that had grown so bright with the new Reign fell a black curtain of gloom. The dice of death supplanted the gaming tables. The play, even if an audience could have been mustered, was forbidden. The courtesans rode no longer in their carriages. Dancing and music houses closed their doors. The puppet-shows and rope dancers, the delight of the common people, vanished from the streets. The colourful cries of London were heard no more.

The King and his Court left the capital, but it is to the credit of Charles II. (wherever he got the money) that he contributed 1,000 a week towards feeding the hungry. The City itself gave 600 a week, and among others generous in their assistance was the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Great Plague had small beginnings. Two deaths occurred suddenly in the parish of St. Giles', as the result of the opening of bales of infected merchandise from Holland, in which land plague had latterly been raging. By May, 1665, the pestilence had taken a firm and unrelenting grip, and gradually it became apparent that the epidemics of 1603, 1625 and 1636 would be completely dwarfed by the immensity of this latest visitation. The awful congestion of the narrow streets, the crude sanitation, and the accumulation of years of filth all contributed to the gathering force of the terror, not the least deadly of the people's enemies being the hordes of rats that infested the city, notorious carriers of the bubonic bacillus.

Each succeeding day brought with it, relentlessly, the certainty of another dreadful reaping. In July, August and September the death ranged from 1,000 to 7,000 a week. The summer was an unusually hot one. For weeks the sun beat down from a cloudless sky upon the stagnant streets. There was not a breath of wind to fan the huddled, disease-ridden houses.

To many in London it seemed inevitable that every living thing within its borders would ultimately be exterminated. So inevitable, indeed, that panic turned to a drug-like fatalism. Few hoped to be spared. Many, in an agony of anticipation, took their own lives. On August 28, Pepys wrote in his immortal diary these words that reflect the despair of the populace: "To Mr. Colvill the goldsmith's not having been for some days in the streets: but now how few people I see, and those looking like people that had taken leave of the world." Then, September 7, he made this tragic entry: "Sent for the weekly bill, and find 8,252 dead in all, and of them 6,978 of the plague."

The fury of the visitation was felt first in the parishes of St. Giles in the Fields; St. Andrew's, Holborn; St. Clement Danes; St. Martin's in the Fields and Westminster, from whence it spread to those of Cripplegate, St. Sepulchre's; St. James's, Clerkenwell; St. Bride's and St. Botolph's, Aldersgate. Like the walled water of a tidal wave it swept over London in its deadliest mood. Stunned, terrified, the Londoners touched their throats and armpits, breasts and groins, touched them a hundred times a day in their apprehension. A growth, a lump, a hardening... the beginning of the end.

They died in bed. They died at the dinner table. They fell dead in the streets and shops and markets. At the height of the summer the plague massacred with abandon. "Now," wrote the Rev. Thomas Vincent, "the cloud is very black and the storm comes down upon us very sharp. Now death rides triumphantly on his pale horse through our streets, and breaks into every house where any inhabitants are to be found. Now people fall as thick as leaves in the autumn when they are shaken by a mighty wind. Now there is a dismal solitude in London streets; every day looks with the face of a Sabbath day, observed with a greater solemnity than it used to be in the City. Now shops are shut, people rare and very few that walk about, inasmuch that the grass begins to spring up in some places; there is a deep silence in every street, especially within the walls. No prancing horses, no rattling coaches, no calling on customers nor offering wares, no London cries sounding in the ears. If any voice be heard it is the groans of dying persons breathing forth their last, and the funeral knells of them that are ready to be carried to their graves. Now, in some places, where the people did generally stay, not one house in a hundred but what is affected: and in many houses half the family is swept away: in some, from the eldest to the youngest; few escape but with the death of one or two. Never did so many husbands and wives die together: never did so many parents carry their children with them to the grave, and go together into the same house under earth who lived together in the same house upon it. Now are the nights too short to bury the dead: the whole day, though at so great a length, is hardly sufficient to light the dead that fall thereon into their graves."

That picture is not exaggerated. The times beggar description.

By order of the Lord Mayor and Aldermen all infected houses were closed. On each door was marked a vivid red cross a foot long, and in bold lettering the words. "Lord have Mercy upon Us." The bodies of the victims were to be given to the dead cart men, and watchmen were set on guard to ensure that no stranger entered and that no member of the stricken household departed. For a pittance, these guards would run the errands of the imprisoned families - having first, by order, locked them in - buying food, delivering messages, discovering the news and events of the day. Not always were they zealous or alert enough in their sentry-go. The shutting up of the houses was commonly resented and many, by bribing their guards, made their escape. Where this method failed others who were denied their freedom resorted to methods that were both crafty and desperate. They climbed over roof-tops. They even murdered their guards in cold blood.

In many ways, indeed, human life was at a discount during the darkest days of the plague. It is an accepted fact that nurse-keepers at sick-beds, or in charge of the aged and infirm, smothered their patients, secure in the knowledge that, with no marks of violence upon them, the bodies would be accepted by the dead cart men, no questions would be asked, no inquiry made. Then, collecting all available gold, jewels and valuable clothing, these ghouls would pass on to the homes of other potential victims. Even where there was no killing there was quick and certain and methodical robbery and pilfering.

It was, perhaps, a natural rather than a criminal instinct which led the dead cart men to strip as many bodies as possible of clothes and valuables. For a task so sinister and perilous as theirs they assessed themselves as worthy of the reward.

The dead carts and the burial pits symbolise more than anything else the stygian horror of the plague period. Looking now at London's smooth, clean streets, shining motor cars and gay red buses, it is difficult to visualise, in contrast, the uncanny gloom of the then half-deserted and stricken capital.

No burials were permitted between sun-rise and sun-down. Night after night the cart rumbled over the rough cobbles, the silent driver cloaked in brown up to his ears, the bellman going before with his harsh and callous yell, "Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!" Many a corpse they would find in doorways and lying in the road, already robbed, perhaps, and sometimes half-naked. They all came the same to the dead cart men, were pushed and packed in with little grace or ceremony.

The first communal burial pits were dug in established graveyards, and for a time there was some semblance of reverence for the dead, occasionally even a brief service. Later, as the death roll mounted, as death itself became almost commonplace, as fear and self-preservation dominated, pits were dug in waste ground. So large were some of these great, hungry caverns that they could have held several houses. They were deep to the point of being water-logged.

With their revolting loads, the dead carts would back to the edge of the pits and there in the eerie glow of dark lanterns, the bodies would be shot down into the waiting gulf, shroudless, sometimes naked, the merchandise of death. Row upon row, and in huddled heaps, they would lie, each tier covered with earth and sometimes quicklime, hundreds of them in a single hole.

Sometimes a prayer would be breathed over such an unholy grave. A watchman, taking pity, would permit a bereaved man or woman to pass the warning lamps and stand awhile at the pit-side in silent grief. It was against the ruling of authority; in any case, such gestures were few. The fumes at the death pits were feared like poison. Even a casual visit might be a tryst with death.

The fear of contact with the pestilence amounted to real terror. The rich and fortunate, of course, had minimised the risk by means of an early escape. Some, with a hoard of food and drink, literally barricaded themselves in their homes, doors and windows bolted and barred, and were not seen or heard for months. Many others had found sanctuary in ships on the Thames.

Those who walked the streets held handkerchiefs and rags reeking with scent clasped against their nostrils. They walked warily in the centre of each narrow thoroughfare, fearful that deadly fumes might reach them from near-by shops and houses. Friends who met avoided the contact of a handshake. Shopkeepers who were still doing business refused to handle the money brought by the customers to make their purchases. They ordered that the coins should be dropped into waiting buckets of vinegar. Others, eager for trade, anxious to feed the hungry but jealous of their own safety from infection, would conduct their dealings and lower purchases on a rope from an upstairs window. The Lord Mayor himself did his public business from the safe level of a high gallery.

On faces everywhere were expressions of fear, suspicion, grief. Old and young alike had seen sights that it is not good for the human eye to see, had heard sounds that would scar the memory for ever.

The symptoms of the plague make obnoxious reading. Briefly, they may be said to have been spots and swellings - nature's unavailing effort to discharge poison from the body - and the infection appeared to have been as much an internal as an external one. Few who were stricken lived longer than two days, but the plague was devilishly inconsistent in its attack. It could kill quickly and mercifully, after spasms supreme in their agony, but quickly over. Thus it was that many met the end in the street. Equally, it could kill with the finesse of torture, inflicting pain in fits and starts over a protracted period, working up by degrees to a climax of such excruciating suffering that the victim was driven to distraction. It was no uncommon sight to see some wretched sufferer running, with maddened shrieks, down the street; to prevent such an occurrence many were strapped and roped to chairs and beds. It is on record that some demented creatures quenched both their fever and their lives in the depths of the Thames. It is a fact, too, that others cast themselves, still alive, into the dead pits, and were left to perish there.

Rogues and charlatans, slick and gold greedy, battened on the credulous during these dreadful days. The fortune teller and the astrologer found easy victims and easier money among stupid and fear-drunk people seeking to know the secret of immunity from the plague, the fate of themselves and their loved ones, how near or far away was death. To such extremities did the uncertainty of human life beyond the next few hours drive the good citizens of London.

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