London was no stranger to plague. The disease had occurred at regular intervals over the years. Indeed, in 1625 no fewer than 40,000 citizens had succumbed to the scourge. At the time, the cause of the disease was not known. In fact, the culprits were fleas, hosted by black rats.
The victims were the poor and those already sick from other causes. Such was the virulence of the plague that 7,400 souls perished in one week in September, 1665, and 70-100,000 in total. Although disease is no respecter of persons, the Court and the rich were able to move out into the countryside, thus escaping from the squalor and deprivation in the city.
An entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys describes the scene as he saw it:
16th October, 1665: But, Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physitian (sic), and but one apothecary left, all being dead – but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week: God send it.”
There are three types of plague: bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic. Bubonic plague attacks the lymph nodes; pneumonic plague attacks the lungs and is highly infectious, being airborne; septicaemic plague is a blood-infected bacterial disease. The prognosis for any of these afflictions is dire.
As autumn gave way to winter, the incidence of the disease fell away. People developed immunity and effective quarantine measures were introduced to shipping entering the country. Thankfully, Britain never experienced another calamity like this again.
Sources: The National Archive *********** The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A Selection, Penguin Classics, 2003