Category Archives: Medical London

The beginning  of the Black Death in London (Robert of Avesbury, 1349)

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In 1349, Robert of Avesbury wrote:

“The pestilence which had first broken out in the land occupied by the Saracens became so much stronger that, sparing no dominion, it visited with the scourge of sudden death the various parts of all the kingdoms … .  [I]t began in England in Dorsetshire … in the year of the Lord 1348, and immediately advancing from place to place it attacked men without warning … .  Very many of those who were attacked in the morning it carried out of human affairs before noon.  And no one whom it willed to die did it permit to live longer than three or four days.  …  And about the Feast of All Saints [November 1st, 1348], reaching London, it deprived many of their life daily, and increased to so great an extent that from the feast of the Purification [February 2nd, 1349] till after Easter [April 12th, 1349] there were more than two hundred bodies of those who had died buried daily in the cemetery which had been then recently made near Smithfield, besides the bodies which were in other graveyards … .  The grace of the Holy Spirit finally intervening, …  about the feast of Whitsunday [May 31st, 1349], it ceased at London … ”.

There were emergency burial sites, or “plague pits”, at East Smithfield, in the grounds of the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces, and at West Smithfield, in what were to become the grounds of the Carthusian monastery of Charterhouse, founded in 1371.

The Charterhouse site,  which only came to light during  work preparatory to the ongoing construction of the “Crossrail” station at Farringdon, has recently been partially archaeologically excavated.  A small number of skeletons have been unearthed here that have been dated to the time of the Black Death, and indeed  that still contain traces of the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis.  Many thousands more are thought to lie buried here still.  Archaeologists and epidemiologists suspect that so many deaths in evidently such a short space of time must have been caused a particularly contagious and virulent pneumonic or septicaemic strain of the plague, and not  by the bubonic strain (the pneumonic and septicaemic strains are capable of being transmitted directly from infected person to person, and are characterised by mortality rates of 90-100%, whereas  the vector-borne bubonic strain is transmitted by rat flea from infected black or brown rat to person, and is characterised by mortality rates of approximately 50%).  Another argument against the Black Death having been bubonic plague is that it began to spike  in London in the winter of 1348-9, when the rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) that transmits this strain of the disease would have been inactive, as it is  everywhere  today at temperatures of less than 10degC.

 

 

 

 

 

“The town begins to be lively again” (Samuel Pepys, 1665)

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

“The ‘Change pretty full, and the town begins to be lively again”.

The “Great Plague” was now well past its peak, and some semblance of normality was beginning to return to a stricken city.  The “Great Plague” 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 60,000  Plague deaths were in the 16 parishes without the walls, the 5 in Westminster, and the 12 in Middlesex and Surrey (St Giles Cripplegate, St Giles-in-the-Fields, St Margaret Westminster, St Martin-in-the-Fields, and Stepney, where there were “pest-houses”, were among the worst affected, with a total of well over 20,000 deaths – 6,500 of them in Stepney alone).  The bodies of the Plague victims were buried either in parish churchyards or in emergency “plague pits”, the latter including those of Tothill Fields in Westminster, to the west; Bedlam, Bunhill Fields and  Holywell Mount, to the north; Aldgate and the  Stepney pest-fields, to the east; and Crossbones Graveyard and Deadman’s Place, to the south.

London’s Water Supply and the “New River”

In the late twelfth century (the time of the chronicler FitzStephen), water drawn from the City’s rivers, or from springs or wells,  was pure and clean and sweet and wholesome.

Later, though,  “the tide from the sea prevailed to such a degree that the water of the Thames was salt; so much so that many folks complained of the ale tasting like salt” (and  obviously they couldn’t have that).

And, by the beginning of the thirteenth century, the supply had become so contaminated by waste as to be not only unpalatable but unsafe to drink, for fear of contracting a potentially lethal water-borne disease such as such as Bloody Flux (Dysentery).

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So, a supply had to be brought in from outside.  A (lead!) pipeline was built, by public subscription, in 1236, to bring water from a spring at Tyburn, roughly opposite where Bond Street tube station now stands,  to the so-called Little Conduit, Standard and Great Conduit on Cheapside, about three miles away (sections  have  recently been discovered 2m below Medieval street level in Paternoster Row and in  Poultry).   Most people collected water from the conduits themselves, although some had it delivered to them – in buckets suspended from shoulder-yokes – by water-carriers or “cobs” (of whom there were 4000 by 1600), and the few that could afford   to had a private supply piped directly to their homes or businesses in specially installed so-called “quills”.  The pipeline    was extended at either end in the fifteenth century so as to run from Oxlese, near where Paddington station now stands,  to Cornhill, about six miles away.  The so-called  Devil’s Conduit under Queen’s Square probably dates to around the same time, a photograph taken in 1910, shortly before its demolition in 1911-3,  showing it to contain graffiti from  1411.  And the  Aldermanbury Conduit under Aldermanbury Square dates to 1471.

By the sixteenth century, the system had become inadequate  to meet the demands of the rising population (it had also become subject to much abuse and over-use by individuals and by commercial and industrial concerns).

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A short-term solution to this problem  was provided  by the construction by the Dutchman Pieter Maritz in 1582 of a – rather rickety – apparatus under one of the arches of London Bridge that  allowed water to be pumped from the Thames  into the heart of the City, or, in the case of the original demonstration to City officials, over the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr!  The apparatus was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but thereafter replaced by Maritz’s grandson, and  continued in use, after a fashion, until the early nineteenth century.

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A longer-term solution was provided by the construction by the Welshman and wealthy merchant, goldsmith, banker and Member of Parliament Sir Hugh Myddelton in 1609-13 of a  10’ wide and 4’ deep canal, or “New River”, all the way from springs at Amwell and Chadwell in Hertfordshire into the City, an incredible 37 miles away, which is still in use to this day (parts of it can be seen along the “New River” walk in Islington, for example in Canonbury Grove).    Myddelton had to overcome any number of technological  obstacles, and much land-owner and political opposition, to see this major civil engineering project through to completion, doing  so with a mixture of drive and determination, the financial support of 29 investors or “adventurers”, and the tacit backing of the king.  His financial backers had to wait some time until they   profited from the enterprise (actually, until 1633, although by 1695 the New River Company ranked behind only the East India Company and Bank of England in terms of its capital value).  The public  health benefits of Myddelton’s project were immediate, though,  and immeasurable,  and indeed it has been described as “An immortal work – since men cannot more nearly imitate the Deity than in bestowing health”.

4 - Myddelton statue, Holborn Viaduct

Myddelton died in 1631, and was buried in the church of  St Matthew Friday Street, where he had served as a warden.  Concerted  attempts to locate his coffin and monument following the church’s demolition in 1886 were unfortunately ultimately  unsuccessful.

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Fittingly, though, there is a statue to the great man on Islington Green in Islington.

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And some of the fittings from the New River Company’s offices, including Grinling Gibbons’s (?) “Oak Room”, may still be seen  in the  London Metropolitan Water Board building, also in Islington.

It was on this day, September 29th,  in 1613, that Hugh Myddelton’s  older brother Thomas, a member of the Grocers’ Company, became  Lord Mayor of London, and officially opened his  “New River”.  The playwright, poet and writer of pageants Thomas Middleton (no relation)  wrote in The manner of His Lordships entertainment … at that most famous and admired worke of the running streame from Amwell head, into the cesterne neere Islington … :

“Long have we laboured, long cherished and prayed

For this great work’s perfection, and by th’aid

Of heaven and good men’s wishes ‘tis at length

Happily conquered by cost, art and strength.

And after five years’ dear expense in days,

Travail, and pains, besides the infinite ways

Of malice, envy, false suggestions,

Able to daunt the spirits of mighty ones

In wealth and courage, this, a work so rare,

Only by one man’s industry, cost  and care

Is brought to blest effect … ”.

 

“The number of the plague the biggest yet” (Samuel Pepys, 1665)

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

“But, Lord! What a sad time it is to see no boats upon the river; and grass grows all up and down White Hall court, and nobody but poor wretches in the streets! And, which is worst of all, the Duke [of Albemarle] showed us the number of the plague this week, … that it is encreased …  more than the last, which is quite contrary to our hopes and expectations, from the coldness of the late season.  For the whole general number is 8297, and of them of the plague 7165; which is more in the whole … than the biggest Bill [of Mortality] yet: which is very grievous to us all”.

The “Great Plague” was now killing over a thousand people a day, and  at its peak, and it had  grown so deathly quiet in London that throughout the City  the river  could be heard flowing under the nineteen arches of the old bridge.  The 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 Mortality is encreased” (1665)

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

“[M]y finding that although the Bill [of Mortality] in general is abated, yet the City within the walls is encreased and likely to continue so, and is close to our house there.  My meeting dead corpses of the plague, carried to be buried close to me at noon-day through the City in Fenchurch Street.  To see a person sick of the sores carried close by me by Grace-church in a hackney-coach.  My finding the Angell tavern, at the lower end of Tower-hill, shut up; and more than that, the alehouse at the Tower Stairs; and more than that, that the person was then dying of the plague when I was last there, a little while ago at night.  To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself.  To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams, to know how they did there, is dead of the plague; and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water … is now dead of the plague.  … To hear that Mr. Lewes hath another daughter sick.  And, lastly, that both my servants, W. Hewers and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St. Sepulchre’s parish, of the plague this week, do put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason”.

And  John Tillison wrote, in a letter to Dr Sancroft:

“Death stares us continually in the face in every infected person that passeth by us; in every coffin which is … carried along the streets.  … The custom was … to bury the dead in the night only; now, both night and day will hardly be time enough to do it.  … [L]ast week, … the dead was piled in heaps above ground … before either time could be gained or place to bury them.  The Quakers … have buried in their piece of ground [Bunhill Row] a thousand … .  Many are [also] dead in … other places about the town which are not included in the bill of mortality”.

The “Great Plague” was almost at  its peak.  It 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 Greatness of the  Plague” (Samuel Pepys, 1665)

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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.  It 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 Sweating Sickness in Tudor London (Edward VI, 1551)

On this day in 1551, the boy-King, Edward VI wrote:

“At this time came the sweat into London, which was more vehement than the old sweat.  For if one took cold he died within 3 hours, and if he escaped it held him but 9 hours, or 10 at the most.  Also if he slept … , as he should be very desirous to do, then he raved, and should die raving”.

The 1551 outbreak  of the sweat, also known as the sweating sickness, “carried off many people both noble and commoners”, as Henry Machyn put it.

On July 14th of that year, the disease caused the death of Henry Brandon, the Second Duke  of Suffolk, aged fifteen, and only an hour later that of his younger brother Charles, the  Third Duke, aged thirteen or fourteen, at the Bishop of Lincoln’s Palace near Huntingdon, where they had fled in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the epidemic.

There were notable outbreaks in England in 1485, 1507, 1517 and 1528-9 as well as 1551, after which last date the disease disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as it had appeared, never to return.  Even at the time, it was recognised as distinct from the other deadly diseases of the time, such as the ague or tertian or quartan fever (malaria) and the plague.  Contemporary descriptions by Edward Hall and the physician Thomas Forestier in 1485, and  by the physician John Kaye or Caius in 1552, chart the symptoms as progressing from a sense of apprehension, through  sometimes violent shivering accompanied by severe aches and pains, to   “a … burnyng sweate … : by the tormentyng and vexacion of which … men were so sore handled … that if they were layed in their bed, being not hable to suffre the importunate heat, they cast away the sheets & all the clothes” and “an insaciable thirst”,  delirium, and eventually, after a matter of hours, either death (“all … after yelded up their ghost”),  or in some cases (“not one emongest an hundreth”) a  gradual but complete recovery.  It is possible that the disease killed Arthur Tudor at Ludlow Castle in 1502, while sparing  his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who went on to marry his brother, by then King Henry VIII, in 1509.

Modern epidemiologists have suggested that the sweating sickness may  have been either Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) or Pulmonary Anthrax (the latter caused by inhaling spores of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, perhaps contained in contaminated wool).