Since the Black Death, London had suffered several outbreaks of plague and had established a quarantine system to restrict infection – houses shut and guarded, doors marked with a cross, disposal carts for dumping the dead in mass graves. But this epidemic was different: the population of London had tripled between 1650 and 1665, when the plague arrived; rats scurried everywhere through the squalid streets of the city and invaded the over-crowded slum dwellings of the poor – and rats carried infected fleas.
The first case in April was followed by one of the hottest summers in memory. Deaths escalated as the plague spread through London. The King’s Court and the nobility hastily departed, followed by the middle classes – lawyers, merchants, clergy and doctors. The ‘plague doctors’ who remained were unqualified opportunists and the sick and the dying were abandoned. Normal daily life came to a halt: inns were closed, markets banned, shops shut, and dogs and cats were destroyed for fear they carried contagion – giving the rats free reign. Parishes employed local residents to carry out the Plague Orders – reporting sickness, nursing, moving bodies. Thousands of families were confined to their homes, waiting to die.
In August the plague spread around the country. It reached Eyam in Derbyshire where the villagers heroically quarantined themselves to prevent the disease spreading further – three quarters of the village died. In London thousands died in the first week of September, and thousands more camped on boats in the Thames to escape infection. Fires burned in the streets; church bells tolled continually.
As the weather began to cool, the rate of infection slowed and Londoners started to come home. The King returned in February 1666. But new plague cases were still appearing in September, when the Great Fire destroyed much of the city and finally purged London of the infection.
When was the Great Plague of London: 1665-1666
Where was the Great Plague of London: London, UK
What was the Great Plague of London death toll: Contemporary Bills of Mortality list 68,576 deaths. Records were not always kept for the poor, and some deaths went unreported to avoid quarantine, so the true figure was probably nearer 100,000.
You should know: The famous diarist Samuel Pepys stayed in London throughout the plague. Much of our knowledge of events comes from the detailed and moving eye-witness record he left for posterity.