The Plague & the Thames
IT was the middle of the Christmas holidays, 1664, when Dr Nathaniel Hodges “was called to a young man in a fever, who after two days’ course of alexiterial medicines, had two risings about the bigness of a nytmeg broke out, one on each thigh”.
Dr Hodges’ young patient was to recover. He was lucky, being the first recorded victim of an epidemic that was to kill around 100,000 Londoners over the next year and a half.
The onset of the Great Plague hit Whitechapel and Aldgate worst of all. It was to lead to the building of a pest-house, or hospital, in Stepney, with a specially constructed road to cope with the enormous traffic of sick people, and turned Aldgate into a vast plague pit for stricken corpses.
The East End was no stranger to plagues. The first had been recorded back in 664AD, the Black Death decimated the population in 1348, and 20,000 Londoners were killed in 1499.
And in 1603, London was hit by a plague that originated in Stepney. 2,798 died in just a week and Stepney dwellers fled into Essex, where they were less than welcome.
“The sight of a Londoner’s flat cap was dreadful to a lot, a treble ruff threw a village into a sweat,” recorded one observer.
But the Great Plague was the worst yet. It started slowly. London was in the grip of a black frost, so cold that even the River Thames had frozen over and the cold weather delayed the onset of the virus.
But in April 1665, the weather became milder and during the second week of that month, 398 were officially logged as dead.
May and June were unusually warm and the few remaining doctors – most had fled for their lives – were recording hundreds of deaths.
They often cited ‘dropsy’, ‘griping of the guts’, ‘winde’, ‘worms’, ‘French pox’ and ‘lethargy’ – anything but the panic-inducing ‘plague’ – as the cause.
Samuel Pepys, a frequent visitor to the East End, walked through town on “the hottest day that I ever felt in my life” and noted the plague houses, shut up and with a red cross on the front door.
The graveyards were filled, and Aldgate was turned into a giant plague pit. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, wrote: “They dug the great pit in the churchyard of our parish of Aldgate. A terrible pit it was… about 40ft in length, and about 15 or 16ft broad… about 9ft deep, but it was said they dug it about 20ft afterwards.
“For though the plague was long a-coming to our parish yet, when it did come, there was no parish in or about London where it raged with such violence as in the two of Aldgate and Whitechapel.”
The Lord Mayor and justices of the peace, desperately searching for a cure, ordered that all cats and dogs be destroyed, lest they be carrying the contagion. It was a disastrous move. The real villains were the rats and, with no natural predators left, they multiplied a hundred-fold.
Meanwhile, the animal corpses joined the piles of human ones rotting, and often exploding, in the baking sun.
By mid-July, 1,000 were dying every week and King Charles and his courtiers fled for Hampton Court. East Enders took to boats, mooring off Wapping and Limehouse in an attempt to beat the infection. Many survived this way, and then, the deaths suddenly declined.
Cold weather set in again and, from a high of 4,000 deaths in the last week of September, just 900 died in the final seven days of November.
Life slowly returned to normal, albeit briefly.
Just a few months later, the Great Fire would sweep much of London away.