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British history

Great Plague

A victim of the Great PlagueA victim of the Great PlagueThe outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665 may have arrived with Dutch trading ships carrying bales of cotton from Amsterdam. That city had been ravaged by the disease only two years earlier, with around 25,000 people thought to have died. The plague struck London's dock areas first, and then the parish of St Giles in the Fields. The number of deaths recorded during the first four months of 1665 increased sharply. Pest-houses, places that were away from other people and where the sick could be cared for (or stay until they died), were built. On 30th April the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: "Great fears of the sickness here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all!" Around 70,000 Londoners perished in 1665. The plague spread to other parts of England as well, claiming up to 200,000 lives in total.

London in 1665

A map of London in 1665A map of London in 1665
A black ratA black rat
In the poorer parts of London, hygiene was impossible to maintain in the overcrowded houses. Open drains flowed down the centre of the narrow, winding streets. Animal dung and slops thrown out of the houses added to the sewage. The cobbles buzzed with flies in summer and the stench was overwhelming. 

Flea infected with the plague bacteriumFlea infected with the plague bacteriumTimber houses and overcrowded slums provided a perfect habitat for the chief culprit in the spread of the plague: the black ratRattus rattus. But the link between the rat as a host to fleas that could transfer diseases to humans was not known at the time. Some people thought that the plague could be prevented by exterminating the many cats and dogs (not the rats) that roamed London’s streets. In fact, this probably allowed the rats to multiply by decimating their predators. Other measures included the lighting of giant bonfires in the streets in the hope that the air “would be cleansed”.

The 1665–66 plague was on a far smaller scale than the Black Death of the 14th century—also an outbreak of bubonic plague. It was described afterwards as the "great" plague because it was the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in England.

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