The Martin Pollins Blog

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The Outbreak
The outbreak in 1665 was caused by Yersinia pestis, the bacterium associated with other plague outbreaks before and after the Great Plague of London. The Great Plague was not an isolated event—40,000 Londoners had died of the plague in 1625—but it was the last and worst of these epidemics. It began in London’s suburb of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, and the greatest devastation remained in London’s outskirts, at Stepney, Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, Cripplegate, and Westminster, quarters where the poor were densely crowded.

The Plague
During the Great Plague of London, the disease (called the bubonic plague) killed about 200,000[1] people in London. In just seven months, almost a quarter of London’s population died from it.

Historic UK records that the Bubonic Plague (aka the Black Death) had been known in England for centuries. It was a dreadful disease. The victim’s skin turned black in patches, and inflamed glands or ‘buboes’ in the groin, combined with compulsive vomiting, swollen tongue and splitting headaches, made it a horrible, agonising killer.

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Picture Credit: “File:Two men discovering a dead woman in the street during the Great Plague of London Wellcome L0001879.jpg” is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Incubation of the disease took only four to six days, and when the plague appeared in a household, the house was sealed, thus condemning the whole family to death. Their homes were marked with a painted red cross on the door and the words, ‘Lord have mercy on us’. 

Medicine in the 17th century had little effect, and knowledge about disease was poor (most people thought that bad smells caused illness). Doctors were too expensive for ordinary people to afford.

This image is taken from Page 24 of Loimographia [electronic resource] : an account of the great plague of London in the year 1665
Picture Credit: “This image is taken from Page 24 of Loimographia [electronic resource] : an account of the great plague of London in the year 1665” by Medical Heritage Library, Inc is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The plague started in the East, possibly China, and quickly spread through Europe. Whole communities were wiped out. Corpses littered the streets as there was no one left to bury them.

London’s Reaction
When the Great Plague struck the English capital in 1665, the rich fled, the economy tottered, and tens of thousands of people were sent to an early grave. How Londoners reacted to pestilence in the 17th century is explained in a HistoryExtra article[2]. The account opens in early 1665:
“January 1665 opened with “a fine hard frost”. Samuel Pepys, a rising young government official, just short of his 32nd birthday, shared a dinner of a good venison pasty and a turkey with his family and reflected with satisfaction on his good health and increasing wealth and esteem. 1664 had ended “with great joy to me”, “everything else in the state quiet, blessed be God”, apart from preparations for conflict with the Dutch. And even the formal declaration of war in March was welcomed with optimism and a rush of nationalistic pride. An early naval victory in June 1665 seemed to fulfil all hopes.

But by that time, London knew it was menaced by a growing epidemic: plague deaths were increasing in number and spread. Pepys first mentions rumours of plague at the end of April and notes seeing houses shut up in Drury Lane on 7 June. Although this was probably the first time he had seen “two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there”, he had no doubt what this “sad sight” meant.”

Those who could, including most doctors, lawyers and merchants, fled London for safer pastures.

In his diary, Samuel Pepys wrote a vivid account of the empty streets in London. Charles II and his courtiers left in July 1665 for Hampton Court and then Oxford. Parliament was postponed and had to sit in October 1665 at Oxford, the increase of the plague being so dreadful. Court cases were also moved from Westminster to Oxford. All trade with London and other plague towns was stopped. The Council of Scotland declared that the border with England would be closed. There were to be no fairs or trade with other countries. This meant many people lost their jobs – from servants to shoemakers to those who worked on the River Thames.

Those doctors who did not flee were powerless against the infectious disease. Germs, the fleas which carried them, and the rats which carried the fleas, flourished in London and other dirty towns. The poorest people remained in London, in the company of the rats and fleas and people who had the plague.

The Great Fire of London
The incidence of the Great Fire of London in September 1666, which killed many of the rats and fleas[3] who were spreading the disease, is widely thought to be why the plague disappeared from London. However, the plague also subsided in other cities without such cause. The decline has also been ascribed to quarantine, but effective quarantine was not established until 1720.

At its worst, in September of 1665, the plague killed 7,165 people in one week. Around September of 1666, it ended.

Nursery Rhyme Reminder
It’s generally thought that the nursery rhyme ‘Ring-a-ring-o’-roses’ is about the plague:

Picture Credit: “Leonard Leslie Brooke 1913 Ring O ‘Roses ch 16 ill a” by janwillemsen is licensed under CC.

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,

A pocket full of posies,

A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down.

‘Roses’ are the red blotches on the skin.

‘Posies’ are the sweet-smelling flowers people carried to try to ward off the plague or the smell of it.

‘Atishoo’ refers to the sneezing fits of people with pneumonic plague.

‘We all fall down’ refers to people dying.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Source: According to, the records indicate that some 68,596 people died during the epidemic, though the actual number of deaths is suspected to have exceeded 100,000 out of a total population estimated at 460,000. See also:
  2. At:
  3. The rats were attracted by city streets filled with rubbish and waste, especially in the poorest areas.

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