The Great Plague of 1665
[¶1] This was the last major outbreak of the plague in England, and the first since 1636, when some 10,000 had died, and 1625, when some 35,000 died (according to estimates in John Graunt's Natural and Political Observations made upon the Bills of Mortality ). In this new outbreak some 75,000 persons are estimated to have died, out of a population of 460,000 in London at that time, with the poor being hardest hit.
[¶2] In 1664, there were some 24,000 deaths from the plague in Amsterdam and deaths from the plague began to be reported in London from Dec. 1664, but the contagion did not spread, in its full severity, throughout the London region until June 1665, when the court removed itself to Oxford (until February 1666). In his fictionalized Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Daniel Defoe claims that about 200,000 residents fled London during this crisis (Defoe 1722: 63). Many contemporaries viewed this calamity as God's judgment on the English nation--for the licentiousness of the times and of the court more particularly. The government appointed public days of prayer and of fasting to address this seeming "national" punishment. Public theatrical performances were prohibited from 5 June 1665 till December 1666 (although there were performances for the court at Whitehall from 11 Oct. 1665); so, too, bear-baitings, games, public feasts, and other assemblies of people were prohibited. Dead bodies were buried in common graves, at first in pits holding 50 or 60 bodies each but eventually in huge troughs for more than a thousand bodies (Defoe 1722: 52-53).
[¶3] To try to contain the spread of the disease, houses in which infected persons were known to be dwelling were ordered to be shut up and locked from the outside, with watchmen placed before them day and night to prevent any of the inhabitants of the dwelling from coming out and to prevent any others from going in for the space of 20-28 days. Such orders had been announced before, in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, but there was great resistance to the idea of being shut up to die in an infected house and people escaped by force or fraud when they could. As Defoe writes in 1722:
This shutting up of houses was at first counted a very cruel and Unchristian Method. . . . there were just so many Prisons in the Town, as there were Houses shut up; and as the People shut up or imprison'd so, were guilty of no Crime, only shut up because miserable, it was really the more intolerable to them. (Defoe 1722: 44, 47)
Defoe's narrator argues that the policy was not only cruel but ineffective, for numbers of persons made desperate by the prospect of being shut up like this, escaped out into the country, though they were really infected, instead of staying in their own homes. Nonetheless, in December 1665 the mortality rate declined steeply and continued to decline through the new year, with only 2,000 deaths from the plague reported for 1666 (Encyclopedia Britannica).
[¶4] "From London the disease spread widely over the country, but from 1667 on there was no epidemic of plague in any part of England, though sporadic cases appeared in bills of mortality up to 1679" (Encyclopedia Britannica). The threat of plague reappeared, however, in the period 1719 to 1722, when there were outbreaks on the Continent (this being the immediate context for Defoe's publication in 1722 of his "memoir" of the Great Plague of 1665).
[¶5] Nor did London become immune to the curse of epidemic illness with the demise of the plague, as the cholera and influenza pandemics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remind us (in the cholera epidemics of 1831-33, some 20,000 people died in England and Wales; in 1848-49, more than 50,000 died; in 1854, 30,000 died in London alone [Shapin 2006: 111]; the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed as many as 200,000 in England and Wales, including perhaps 20,000 out of a population of 4.48 million in London [Smallman-Raynor, et al. 2002: 453, 456]). It is only since the early twentieth century, that such epidemics have fallen out of the experience of Western societies and become characteristics that people associate more or less exclusively with "Third World" countries. In recent years, however, the rise of anxieties about SARS, West Nile virus, bird-flu virus, multiply-resistant strains of tuberculosis, etc., has led to a greater recognition of the need to confront public health issues as global concerns--rather than as other peoples' problems.[revised 13 July 2010]