The Plague Comes to Town

If only they’d had antibiotics in the seventeenth century, the course of Susannah’s life in The Apothecary’s Daughter would have been very different.

Scientists have recently mapped the genetic code of bacteria obtained from an ancient plague pit in East Smithfield in London.

The plague pit originated from the time of the Black Death of 1347 – 1351, which resulted in the estimated deaths of up to half the European population – some 50 million people. Scientists were surprised to discover that the genetic codes of bacterium taken from the teeth of skeletons in the plague pit are virtually identical to modern strains of Yersinia pestis, which can be killed by tetracyclines and fluoroquinolones.

It is believed that the Black Death was so deadly because it was a new disease and the population had little resistance to it. Descendants of survivors of the Black Death may have evolved to increase their immunity.

The 1664 outbreak of the plague began in St Giles in the Field, a crowded and unhygienic area and very quickly spread throughout the city. In the seventeenth century it was thought that the plague could be spread through the air  by sneezing so the victims were quarantined by locking them up in their homes. Unfortunately, this meant that they were trapped along with the black rats and their fleas, which carried the plague. Invariably other members of the family would be bitten by the fleas and fall ill.

The symptoms were often those of a bad cold at first, followed by a high fever, vomiting and black swellings in the armpits and groin. The extreme high temperature often killed the sick.

Extracts from Pepys Diary

7th June 1665

This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell to and chaw – which took away the apprehension.

10th June 1665

In the evening home to supper, and there to my great trouble hear that the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City); but where it begin but in my good friend and neighbour’s, Dr Burnett in Fanchurch Street – which troubles me mightily.

11th June 1665

I out of doors a little to show forsooth my new suit, and back again; and in going, saw poor Dr Burnets door shut. But he hath, I hear, gained goodwill among his neighbours; for he discovered it himself first, and caused himself to be shut up of his own accord – which was very handsome.

17th June 1665

It stroke me very deep this afternoon, going with a hackney-coach from my Lord Treasurer’s down Holborne – the coachman I found to drive easily and easily; at last stood still, and came down hardly able to stand; and told me that he was suddenly stroke very sick and almost blind. So I light and went into another coach, with a sad heart for the poor man and trouble for myself, lest he should have been stroke with the plague – being at that end of the town that I took him up. But God have mercy upon us all.

12th August 1665

The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not sufficing.

16th August 1665

 Hence to the Exchange, which I have not been a great while. But Lord, how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the Change – jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague – and about us, two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.”

3rd September 1665

And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection – that it had been cut off of heads of people dead of the plague.

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 sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physitian, and but one apothecary left, all being dead.

Here are some seventeenth century preventative measures against the plague taken from Proclomations and Broadsides 1632 -1688.

Take a white sponge and soak it in Herb of Grace (rue). This can be made by taking a quart of vinegar, half a pint of rosewater, and half a handful of wormwood. Boil it to a pint and when cold soak it in a sponge and hold it to the nose.

Take a walnut kernel, a corn of salt, four leaves of the Herb of Grace. Cut them up very small and put the mixture into a fig. Roast it and eat.

Hmm. That’s all very well but I’m relieved that we live in an age where we have effective antibiotics.

The Apothecary’s Daughter

Susannah Leyton has grown up in her father’s apothecary shop on bustling, malodorous Fleet Street and she impresses even dour Dr William Ambrose with her medical knowledge. Embroiled in a battle of wills with her new stepmother, Susannah receives a proposal of marriage from William’s handsome and charming cousin. As the plague sweeps through London, tragedy strikes, and, for Susannah, nothing can ever be the same again.

In an atmospheric story bursting with colour and scent, Restoration London comes vividly to life.

Buy the book here 




4 thoughts on “The Plague Comes to Town”

  1. Excellent insight into the horror of daily life with the plague…
    Antibiotics available at most good pharmacists, by the way!

    Great Blog


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