Daily Archives: February 1, 2007

Item of the Day: Defoe’s History of the Plague (1754)

Full Title:  The HISTORY of the Great PLAGUE in London, in the Year 1665. Containing, Observations and memorials of the most remarkable Occurrences, both Public and Private, that happened during that dreadful Period.  By a Citizen, who lived the whole Time in LONDON. To which is added, a JOURNAL of the Plague at Marseilles, in the Year 1720.  London: Printed for, and Sold by F. and J. Noble, at their Circulating Libraries, in King’s Street Covent-Garden, and in St. Martin’s Court near Leicester-Square, 1754. [Price Five shillings in Boards.]


It was about the Beginning of September 1664, that I, among the Rest of my Neighbours, heard, in ordinary Discourse, that the Plague was return’d again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Roterdam, in the Year 1663. whether they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant among some Goods, which were brought home by their Turkey-Fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus.  It matter’d not, from whence it came; but all agreed, it was come into Holland again.

We had no such thing as printed News-Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv’d to see practis’d since.  but such things as those were gather’d from the Letters of Merchants, and others, who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by Word of Mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.  But it seems that the Government had a true Account of it, and several Counsels were held about Ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private.  Hence it was, that this Rumour died off again, and People began to forget it, as a thing we were very little concern’d in, and that we hoped was not true; till the latter End of November, or the Beginning of December 1664, when two Men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the Plague in Long-Acre, or rather at the upper End of Drury-Lane.  The Family they were in, endeavour’d to conceal it as much as possible; but as it had gotten some Vent in the discourse of the Neighbourhood, and Secretaries of State got Knowledge it.   And concerning themselves to enquire about it, in order to be certain of the Truth, two Physicians and a Surgeon were order’d to go to the House, and make Inspection.  This they did; and finding evident Tokens of the Sickness upon both the Bodies that were dead, they gave their Opinions publickly, that they died of the Plague; whereupon it was given in to the Parish Clerk, and he also return’d them to the Hall; and it was printed in the weekly Bill of Mortality in the usual manner, thus,

Plague 2.  Parishes infected I.

The People shew’d a great Concern at this, and began to be alarm’d all over the Town, and the more, because in the last Week in December 1664, another Man died in the same House, and of the same Distemper: And then we were easy again for about six Weeks, when none having died with any Marks of Infection, it was said, the Distemper was gone; but after that, I think it was about the 12th of February, another died in another House, but in the same Parish, and in the same manner.

This turn’d the Peoples Eyes pretty much towards that End of the Town; and the weekly Bills shewing an Increase of Burials in St. Giles’s Parish more than usual, it began to be suspected that the Plague was among the People at that End of the Town; and that many had died of it, tho’ they had taken Care to keep it as much from the Knowledge of the Publick, as possible:  This possess’d the Heads of the People very much, and few car’d to go thro’ Drury-Lane, or the other Streets suspected, unless they had extraordinary Business, that obliged them to it.

This Increase of the Bills stood thus; the usual Number of Burials in a Week, in the Parishes of St.Giles’s in the fields, and St. Andrew’s Holborn; were from 12 to 17 or 19 each, few more or less, but from the Time that the Plague first began in St. Giles’s Parish, it was observ’d that the ordinary Burials increased in Number considerably.  For Example,

From Dec 27 to Jan 3  St. Giles’s………………….16

                                        St. Andrew’s…………….17

           Jan. 3 to—-10  St. Giles’s………………….12

                                        St. Andrew’s…………….25

           Jan 10.——17  St. Giles’s…………………18

                                        St. Andrew’s…………….18

From Jan 17. to Jan 24.  St. Giles’s………………23

                                           St. Andrew’s………….16

. . .

Besides this, it was observed with great Uneasiness by the People, that the weekly Bills in general increas’d very much during these Weeks, altho’ it was a Time of the Year, when usually the Bills are very moderate.

The usual Number of Burials with the Bills of Mortality for a Week, was from about 240 or thereabouts, to 300. The last was esteem’d a pretty high Bill; but after this we found the Bills successively increasing, as follows.


Dec. the 20. to the 27th,  Buried 291  ———-

                27. to the 3 Jan. —— 349.  ———- 58

January    3. to the 10.      —— 394. ———-  45

                 10. to the 17.      —— 415.  ———- 21

                  17. to the 24.     —— 474. ———– 59

This last Bill was really frightful, being a higher Number than had been known to have been buried in one Week, since the preceding Visitation of 1656.

However, all this went off again, and the Weather proving cold, and the Frost which began in December, still continuing very severe, even till near the End of February, attended with sharp tho’ moderate winds, the Bills decreas’d again, and the City grew healthy, and every body began to look upon the Danger as good as over; only that still the Burials in St. giles’s continu’d high:  From the Beginning of April especially they stood at 25 each Week, till the Week from the 18th to the 25th, when there was buried in St. Giles’sParish 30, whereof two of the Plague, and 8 of the Spotted-Fever, which was look’d upon as the same thing; likewise the Number that died of the Spotted-Fever in the whole increased, being 8 the Week before, and 12 the week above-named.




Filed under 1660's, 1750's, Great Britain, Plague, Posted by Rebecca Dresser