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“ Aug. 8th.-Died this week in London 4,000.” “Aug. 13th.—There perished this week 5,000.”
“Sept. 7th.—Came home, there perishing near 10,000 poor creatures weekly ; however, I went all along the city and suburbs from Kent Street to St. James's, a dismal passage, and dangerous to see so many coffins exposed in the streets, now thin of people; the shops shut up, and all in mournful silence, not knowing whose turn might be next.”
“Oct. 11th.–To London, and went through the whole city, having occasion to alight out of the coach in several places about business of money, when I was environed with multitudes of poor pestiferous creatures begging alms; the shops universally shut up, a dreadful prospect.”
Of this dreadful visitation, the Great Plague of London, the first official notice seems to have been an Order in Council, dated April 26th, 1665, announcing that it had broken out in the parish of St. Giles's-in-theFields, and directing certain measures to be taken for arresting its progress. These, however, proved ineffectual, and the pestilence rapidly swept over the whole of the metropolis, making its way into the city proper towards the end of June. People then began to hurry into the country while there was yet time to escape; for, as soon as the infection became general, a strict cordon was drawn round the plague-stricken capital, to prevent the disease from being carried into the provinces. In July the King filed with his Court, and took refuge in Salisbury, leaving London in charge of Monk, Duke of Albemarle. A deep sense of despair seems to have settled down upon the inhabitants, whose gloom was deepened by the restrictions enforced upon neighbourly relations, and even
upon the intercourse of families. A red cross was branded on the door of every house where the fatal disease showed itself, and thenceforward that house was cut off, as it were, from the outer world. At night the carts rattled through the silent streets to collect the bodies of the dead and convey them to the pits, into which they were huddled without the sacred offices of the Church. Trade and commerce almost entirely ceased their action, and the horror of the situation was increased by a growing scarcity of provisions. The selfishness latent in human nature displayed itself with ghastly ostentation; the sick were left to suffer unattended ; a suspected house was shunned even by the ministers of religion. “London,” says Defoe, “ might well be said to be all in tears; the mourners did not go about the streets, indeed, for nobody put on black, or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearest friends; but the voice of mourning was truly heard in the streets; the shrieks of women and children at the windows and doors of their houses, where their nearest relatives were perhaps dying, or just dead, were so frequent to be heard, as we passed the streets, that it was enough to pierce the stoutest heart in the world to hear them. Tears and lamentations were seen in almost every house, especially in the first part of the visitation, for towards the latter end men's hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.”
The Rev. Thomas Vincent, one of the Nonconforming clergy, who bravely remained in the infected city, thus describes the condition of affairs in August :-“ Now
people fall as thick," he says, “as the leaves in 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 in, people rare and very few that walk about, insomuch that the grass begins to spring up in some places, and a deep silence in every place, especially within the walls. No prancing horses, no rattling coaches, no calling in 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 shutting up of visited houses (there being so many) is at an end, and most of the well are mingled among the sick, which otherwise would have got no help. 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 had lived together in the same house upon it. Now the nights are 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.”
London was virtually put into perpetual quarantine by the alarmed country people, who, at a distance of even forty and fifty miles from the capital, were afraid to purchase anything that came from its marts, or to allow any of its inhabitants to enter their houses. And, in the city itself, transactions were necessarily conducted with the utmost precaution :-“ When anyone bought a joint of meat in the market, they would not take it out of the butcher's hand, but took it off the hooks themselves. On the other hand, the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose. The buyer carried always small money, to make up any odd sum, that they might take no change. They carried bottles for scents and perfumes in their hands, and all the means that could be used were employed; but then the poor could not do even these things, and they went on at all hazards.” The grotesque mingled with the terrible, as it always does, and quacks found ready customers for the “ only true plague-water” and the '“ infallible preventive pills.” It is sad to relate that the national clergy at this great crisis shrank timorously from their duty. “Most of the conformable ministers fled,” says Baxter, “ leaving their flocks in the hour of most urgent need;" it was only the nonconforming clergy who remained at the post of danger, which was also the post of honour; who went, though prohibited by a harsh and unjust law, into the forsaken pulpits, preached to the poor people before they died, visited the sick, and relieved the distressed. The fashionable physicians exhibited the same ignoble regard for their own safety. It would seem. that the courage and manliness of the higher classes had deteriorated under the evil influence of a dissolute and luxurious Court.
There are some touches in Pepys which bring out mostvividly the dark and unwholesome aspects of this terrible visitation. On the 3rd August he went on a visit to Dept
ford, and met Lord Crewe returning to the town. The journey was shortened by Mr. Man's narrative of a maidservant of a Mr.John Wright, living thereabout, who, having fallen sick of the plague, was removed to an out-house, and put in charge of a nurse, but during the latter's absence got out at the window and ran away. “The nurse coming and knocking, and, having no answer, believed she was dead, and went and told Mr. Wright so; who and his lady were in a great strait what to do to get her buried. At last, resolved to go to Burntwood [Brentwood] hard by, being in the parish, and there get people to do it. But they would not: so he went home full of trouble, and in the way met the wench walking over the common, which frighted him worse than before ; and was forced to send people to take her, which he did ; and they got one of the pest-coaches, and put her into it, to carry her to a pesthouse. And, passing, in a narrow lane, Sir Anthony Browne, with his brother and some friends in the coach, met this coach with the curtains drawn close. The brother, being a young man, and believing there might be some lady in it that would not be seen, and the way being narrow, he thrust his head out of his own into her coach, and to look, and there saw somebody looking very ill, and in a silk dress, and struck mightily.”
Can one conceive of anything ghastlier ?
On one August evening he goes from Brentford to Queenhive (Queenhithe): “I could not get my waterman to go elsewhere,” he writes, “for fear of the plague. Thence with a lanthorn, in great fear of meeting of dead corpses, carrying to be buried; but, blessed be God ! met none, but did see now and then a link, which is the mark of them, at a distance."