DURING the 17th century the worst outbreak of plague since the Black Death of 1348 tore its way through London.
Thousands were estimated to have perished during the outbreak, but what was the plague? How did it end? Here’s all you need to know.
What was the Great Plague of London?
It is known by a few names, the Black Death and the Great Mortality.
In the 17th century, the plague was sweeping across Europe, endemic mostly in the congested major cities.
But this outbreak was of a proportion far greater than had been seen for some time.
The plague had been known to England for centuries since it first wrecked society in 1348.
The World Health Organisation describes plague symptoms as “flu-like”, with one to seven days between incubation and the symptoms emerging.
Victims suffered terribly. Their skin turned black in patches, glands became inflamed or ‘buboes’ in the groin. This was combined with uncontrollable vomiting, tongue swelling, and headaches.
Altogether, an agonising way to die.
Plague is an infectious disease caused by the Yersinia Pestis bacteria usually found in small mammals and their fleas.
It has an extremely high fatality rate and is very infectious, although it can be treated by antibiotics if it’s caught early.
Depending on what area of the body is involved, the plague has three main types:
- pneumonic plague – here the lungs are infected. The plague can be passed from person to person through droplets in the air.
- septicaemic plague – this is when the blood is infected. It can be a complication of pneumonic and bubonic plague or occur by itself. When it manifests on its own, it happens the same way as the bubonic plague but there are no buboes.
- bubonic plague – this is the most common form of plague and is caused by the bite of an infected flea. The bacteria is transferred from the flea to the body and travels through the lymphatic system to lymph nodes where it multiplies. This causes the lymph node to become inflamed and painful, a bubo.
Bubonic plague is fatal in 30%-60% of cases, while the pneumonic kind is always fatal if left untreated.
This was not the first time the plague hit London, in 1625 40,000 Londoners died from it, but the 1665 outbreak was the worst and last epidemic of its kind in London.
How did the Great Plague of London start?
How the Great Plague of London started remains a mystery.
It is thought most likely to have come across on a Dutch ship.
Black rats carried the fleas that caused the plague. They were attracted by city streets filled with rubbish and waste, especially in the poorest areas.
At the time this was not known and would not be known for centuries.
Those that lived in the poorer, crowded areas of London were at higher risk of contracting the plague as rats were more present in these areas.
The plague began in the London suburb St Giles in the fields and the worst effects stayed in the city’s outskirts at Stepney, Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, Cripplegate, and Westminster.
What was the death toll of the Great Plague of London?
Millions of people across Europe died of the plague since its first outbreak from 1347 to 1351, aptly named the Black Death.
The second wave in the 1500s saw the emergence of a new strain, once again bringing nations to their knees with high death tolls.
The last plague pandemic hit Asia at the end of the 1800s, giving the scientific and medical communities the opportunity to identify and study the disease.
During the Great Plague of London, it was recorded that an estimated 68,596 people died although it is believed that more than 100,000 people perished out of a population of 460,000.
At its height, the disease was claiming 7,000 lives a week, according to conservative measurements
It was believed that there was an outbreak during the winter of 1664, however, it did not spread like wildfire until the spring of 1665.
Those who could, including lawyers, doctors, and nobility, abandoned the city for their own safety
King Charles II and his court fled the city in the summer of 1665 and did not return until February 1666. Parliament also relocated out of the city to Oxford during the worst of the epidemic.
Did the Great Fire of London end the plague outbreak?
London was struck by a second tragedy in 1666, The Great Fire of London.
Some believed that the fire is what brought about the end of the plague, but others argue that the plague had already started to wane before the fire destroyed most of the city.
Over 13,000 homes were destroyed, along with almost 90 churches and even St Paul’s Cathedral was damaged by the blaze.
The fire started in September in the King’s bakery on Pudding Lane. Fires at the time were common and usually easily stopped. However, the summer was a hot one, so the wooden buildings were tinder dry.
Strong winds also helped the fire to spread with devastating effects.