“The Greatness of the  Plague” (Samuel Pepys, 1665)


1 - Lord have mercy on London - Copy

On this day in 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“Up; and, after putting several things in order to my removal, to Woolwich; the plague having a great increase this week, beyond all expectation of almost 2,000, making the general Bill [of Mortality] 7,000, odd 100; and the plague above 6,000.  Thus this month ends with great sadness upon the publick, through the greatness of the plague every where through the kingdom almost.  Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase.  In the City died this week …  6,102 of the plague.  But it is feared that the true number …  is near 10,000; partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them”.

The “Great Plague” was now killing nearly a thousand people a day, and approaching its peak.  At this point, it grew  so deathly quiet that throughout the City the River Thames could be heard flowing under the nineteen arches of Old London Bridge.

The “Great Plague” eventually killed at least 70000 people in London, and possibly as many as 100000 – far more than the “Black Death” of 1348-9, although far fewer in proportion to the overall population.  The “Bills of Mortality” show that of the 70000 recorded Plague deaths, only 10000 were in the 97 parishes within the walls of the City  – possibly because a significant proportion  of those inhabitants who could afford to do so had fled to the country.  The remaining 60000  Plague deaths were in the 16 parishes without the walls, the 5 in Westminster, and the 12 in Middlesex and Surrey.  Stepney was the worst affected, with 6500 deaths.

The Parish Clerks’ “Bills of Mortality” for the Plague Year of 1665 are examined at  the church of All Hallows Staining on our “London Wall” standard walk, and on our “Tudor and Stuart London”, “Tudor and Stuart City highlights” and “Lost City highlights” themed specials.  The bulk of the church collapsed in 1671, the foundations undermined by plague burials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the “Our Guided Walks” section.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site (www.lostcityoflondon.co.uk), or by e-mail (lostcityoflondon@sky.com).


2 thoughts on ““The Greatness of the  Plague” (Samuel Pepys, 1665)

  1. Pingback: “The Greatness of the  Plague” (Samuel Pepys, 1665) — The Lost City of London | A CERTAIN MEASURE OF PERFECTION

  2. simonjkyte

    I commenced pulling at the door frantically – wildly, in fact this time. On another wall, I became conscious of a huge portrait of a group of serious-minded men surrounded by their own books which now caught fire too. The gaze of a man right at the heart of it, one with a finely pointed beard, seemed to stare down at me from it, mockingly. He could, of course, have had no sensation of the flame working its way to him – which it undoubtedly was doing. He had concerns elsewhere though for his right hand was pointing to a particular volume which lay before him. Suddenly, I felt the door give way and found myself awake with my disturbed wife for company. My return to the land of the real – or more real – was probably sharper than it had ever been. Such violent dislocations were an unfamiliar thing for me.

    —…May the Lord forgive us! What hour is it?

    But she could hardly be precise.

    —I think it is about the third hour of the morning .

    —Thank you for waking me, my dear! I was having the most horrible of dreams as you probably guessed… [She looked surprised.] …That is why you woke me, is it not?

    —No… No, I did so because there is a fair degree of commotion out in the street…

    I rose…

    Throwing open the top floor window above and seeing a group of men carrying lanterns, I called out to a coarse-looking fellow in the street immediately below.

    —What is all this brutish noise?

    If I had been at all harsh upon him, he did not seem overly offended. And it had been harsh of me, for, to all intents and purposes, there was no noise which had actually disturbed me from my slumbers …with the sole exception of the roaring of paper and parchment.

    —There’s a fire broken out several streets west of here.

    I had known about that, of course. But it had been nothing of note. Instinctively, I looked to the skyline. There was a dull glow in the air, some deathly aura wrapped around the houses beyond him.

    —Anything serious ?

    —I’d have probably said ‘No’, Sir, a little earlier but they say it is spreading on dry timbers . Certainly no danger for the time being at any rate! Down towards Thames Street it is – they say it broke out in a bakery. More likely to be the fault of Dutch immigrants if you ask me!

    I had not asked him. So, I gave the man my thanks and shut the window firmly again. A thin pall of dust – no, not actually dust but rather the ashes of what were once buildings – went up into the night air as I did so. It did catch my gaze very briefly for there was something of the disconcerting in it. Indeed, at that point, I considered whether I might not fare better to rise there and then. …But in the event I simply went back to bed, explaining to my wife what I had just heard. She seemed little perturbed. Only mildly less so than me, I guess …on the surface of it all.

    Nevertheless, once more, I did not sleep at all well, imagining that I heard calls for help throughout the night and still upset at a deeper level by the aftertaste of the burning library. The stench of one world was actually very little distinct from the other thanks to some seeping between the two. Indeed, I dreamed also something around the words of the fellow in the street: Dutch people and some secret cell of their collaborators attached to a strange faith celebrating how the City was burning. I had never had anything against them. I had never been that sort of person. London had always brought in people from all lands. Indeed, that is what kept its mechanism in the best of orders. And the Dutch types. Well, apart from their wars – and I need not mention those , we were used enough to them. I admit that at this particular point in time opinion was most unlikely to favour them. But generally I do not let such bigotry get to me.

    And yet, on this occasion, they were there in my mind, gathered around a table as in the grand portrait in the mysterious library, their own books of learning upon it, looking proud and serious. In reality, they were nothing more than a group of merchants accompanied by their English collaborators (and largely indistinguishable from one another in fact, thanks to the adoption of the former’s tastes and fashions by the latter) but they thought more of themselves than that, as though they had knowledge that the rest of us did not. Around six I could take no more of my own ridiculous imaginings and finally rose . To my astonishment, it turned out that even by then some three hundred homes had been burned to the ground. This was going to be a conflagration of more than the usual proportions for that was a hundred houses per hour.


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