Circa 1665, Tipping bodies from a cart into a communal grave in London during the Great Plague. … [+]
On April 30, 1665 – 355 years ago today – a high-ranking British government official named Samuel Pepys ended the day’s diary entry with an ominous sentence: “Great fears of the Sicknesse here in the city, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up [quarantined],” he wrote. “God preserve us all.” The Great Plague of London had begun, and by the time it ended several months later, a quarter of the city would be dead.
Reading Pepys’ diary for the rest of 1665 feels uncomfortably familiar after living through the winter and spring of 2020. Pepys and his social circle go through the same process we’ve all just gone through: It started with the early reports of outbreaks someplace else, then in their own city and on their own streets. The disease started as a distant worry, and then friends, neighbors, and relatives started getting sick. Every week, the death toll grew. On the deserted streets, the few people who were out could only seem to talk about the pandemic. Some argued over how to avoid the plague and how to cure it, touting unproven cures and ignoring medical advice. Normally-bustling commercial centers stood empty, and government floundered as officials fled the epicenters of illness or got sick.
And yet, life also went on (except for the people for whom it didn’t, of course). Over the next few months, Pepys’ diary records the epidemic’s progress and its impact on life in London, but those observations are mixed in among lengthy accounts of naval warfare against the Dutch (Pepys was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, a senior civilian administrator of the Royal Navy), political maneuvering, court intrigues, social engagements, and flirtations with a cast of ladies, maids, and serving girls. But for several months, the plague was a constant presence in Pepys’ life, rating a mention in his diary nearly every day and hanging over everything else.
History has never been so relatable.
Welcome To The Plague Year
The plague had been lurking quietly on the horizon of Pepys’ life since that first note on April 30, but nearly a month later, on May 24, 1665, he wrote about a visit to a London coffeehouse, “where all the news is of the Dutch [fleet sailing] and of the plague growing upon us in this towne; and of remedies against it, some saying one thing, some another.”
By June 8, Pepys was warning his wife to take a different route to a friends’ house to avoid a plague-stricken area of London, but he seemed more focused on Britain’s naval victory against the Dutch a few days earlier. Two days later, he got word of plague cases on the street where a friend, Dr. Burnett, lived. Within a week, he was making arrangements for his wife, Elizabeth, to stay with friends outside of town until the whole thing blew over. Meanwhile, 112 people had died in London in the week since Pepys got the news about the naval victory.
Around the same time, Pepys starts to mention friends and colleagues fleeing to the countryside, hoping to get away from the crowded city where plague seemed to spread so quickly. By the end of June, wagons and people on foot were clogging the roads out of town. Elizabeth Pepys left on July 5, and that night Pepys wrote about feeling lonely without her, but added, “some trouble there is in having the care of a family at home in this plague time.”
Two weeks later, he noted that people in the outlying towns saw London as an epicenter of disease. “Lord! To see, among other things, how all these great people here are afeared of London, being doubtful of anything that comes from thence, or that hath lately been there.”
Things Get Worse
Pepys recorded the weekly death tolls in his diary around the middle of every week from June 17 on, and those steadily rising numbers are mixed in amid the details of the marriage he was working to arrange between a friend’s daughter and another friend’s son, the ongoing conflict with the Dutch, and descriptions of houses where whole families were “shut up,” or quarantined. Once a family member caught the plague, no one in the family was allowed to leave the house. Everyone was trapped inside with the plague (and the fleas that carried it).
More and more houses were “shut up” as June moved into July, but he skips from those grim sights to his frustrations with his work as Treasurer for the Tangiers colony, social outings with friends, and a truly mind-boggling string of dalliances in his wife’s absence. It’s safe to say that social distancing did not weigh heavily on his mind, even if the plague itself did.
But although Pepys managed to keep up with his work, go out visiting friends, and make regular trips to Woolwich to see his wife, all around him, the epidemic was getting worse. By July 20, the disease was “scattered almost every where, there dying 1,089 of the plague this week,” and London officials had resorted to burying the plague dead in mass graves.
“I was much troubled this day to hear at Westminster how the officers do bury the dead in the open Tuttle-fields, pretending want of room elsewhere,” he wrote on July 18, then added that there was still room to be had in at least one of London’s cemeteries, and “such as are able to pay dear for it, can be buried there.”
“The streets [were] mighty thin of people,” he wrote on July 22, adding that the Royal Exchange was also eerily empty; the nation’s commerce had slowed nearly to a halt in the face of the plague. Pepys was preoccupied with growing tensions between Britain and France and the continuing war with the Dutch, but around him neighbors and acquaintances were getting sick and dying.
Most of Pepys’ closest friends had managed to avoid the plague so far, though, and one of them helpfully gave him a bottle of something called “plague-water,” one of several remedies people hoped would save them. Despite the constant undercurrent of worry in his daily notes, on July 31, Pepys describes July as “the greatest glut of content[ment] that ever I had; only under some difficulty because of the plague, which grows mightily upon us.” 1700 people died of the plague in London that week.
Things Get Much Worse
A week and a half later, the plague was claiming 3,000 victims a week in London alone, and Pepys wrote, “the town grown so unhealthy that a man cannot depend on living two days to an end.” He gave in to the urge to update his will and get his financial affairs – the same ones he’d been so preoccupied with back on April 30, when the world had been a very different place – in order.
On August 20, Pepys stumbled over a dead plague victim in the street on his way home one night. People had started carrying the dead and dying out into the street so the corpse carts could pick them up for burial. Two days later, he passed a farm under quarantine, where guards refused to even allow anyone to collect the dead and bury them. Elsewhere in London, a family faced steep fines for rescuing a healthy child from a plague-stricken house; by law, she was supposed to have been left locked inside with her dying parents.
“This disease is making us more cruel to one another than if we are doggs,” wrote Pepys. The world looked and felt like it was ending, but some parts life remained strangely normal. He continued his work, running the Royal Navy and navigating the tense political landscape. He kept drinking, dining, and visiting with his friends, too, and accounts of their nights out are interspersed with the names of acquaintances who had gotten sick or died.
And the death toll kept climbing. By the end of August, London’s gravediggers buried 6,000 people in a single week, and Pepys worried that thousands more of the city’s poorest residents were dying uncounted and unnoticed by the officials who kept the Mortality Bill, the record of the city’s weekly deaths. “This month ends with great sadness upon the publick,” he wrote on August 31.
And it seems that amid all that sadness, Pepys – like many of us today – struggled with guilt for being happy. “In this sad time of the plague, everything else has conspired to my happiness and pleasure,” he wrote on September 14, as the epicenter of the epidemic shifted toward the walled enclave of the City of London and the area around the Tower of London. The same day, he wrote his most detailed description of life at the height of the Great Plague:
“My meeting dead corpses of the plague, carried to be buried close to me at noon-day through the City in Fanchurch-street. To see a person sick of the sores, carried close by me by Gracechurch in a hackney-coach. My finding the Angell tavern, at the lower end of Tower-hill, shut up. […] To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself. To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams, to know how they did there, is dead of the plague; and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, […] and is now dead of the plague.”
On October 7, a cart laden with corpses passed close by Pepys in a London street, and he remarked, “I am come to think almost nothing of it.”
Things Get Better
“Lord! how empty the streets are and melancholy,” Pepys wrote on October 14. “So many poor sick people in the streets full of sores; and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, every body talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that, in Westminster, there is never a physician and but one apothecary left, all being dead; but that there are great hopes of a great decrease [in cases] this week: God send it!”
That’s what everyone kept saying through October and into November of 1665: as the weather got colder, the epidemic would start to taper off. People would stop dying. In the meantime, things were still dire.
But on November 15, city officials reported that only 1,300 people had died of the plague that week – less than a quarter of the death rate a few weeks before. And the next week, only 600 people died, and a heavy frost fell on November 22, killing fleas and saving countless lives.
On November 24, Pepys saw the Royal Exchange was bustling with commerce again, and a few days later he and his wife started to talk about moving back into their London home. By the end of December, he wrote, “the plague is abated almost to nothing.”
A few cases popped up here and there around the city in the early months of the new year, but the Great Plague was finally over.
“But many of such as I know very well, dead,” Pepys wrote on December 31, 1665. “Yet to your great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to be open again.”