Tag Archives: Bills of Mortality

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

1 - Lord have mercy on London

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.

Hatches, Matches and Despatches (1538)

The Bills of Mortality for the Plague Year

On this day in 1538, Henry VIII’s Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell mandated the keeping by parish clerks of registers of births, deaths and marriages (“every wedding, christening and burying”) within their parishes  – to which we owe much of what we now know of everyday past life in London.

According to the Parish Clerks’ “Bills of Mortality” for the “Plague Year” of 1665, 68596  people died of the – bubonic – plague in London in  1665, including 112 in the parish of All Hallows Staining (the church collapsed in 1671, it is said  on account of undermining of its foundations by plague  burials).  A  further 4808 people died of “consumption and tiffick”, which might actually have been the plague as well.  And 5 died of being “distracted”!

Among the plague victims was my twelve times great-aunt’s first husband, Robert  Mickell, who  succumbed on 17th September, 1665  (having written in his will only days earlier, evidently only too aware of his own mortality, “I … being well in body … praised bee God for the same but considering the frailty of man’s life and not knowing how soon it may please Almighty God my creator to call me out of this transitory world doe make and ordayne this my last will and testament … ”).

He died as the epidemic reached its peak, killing over a thousand people a day.

The epidemic finally began to abate with the onset of  the cold weather in October, 1665, which would have rendered inactive the rat fleas responsible for its  spread.