‘Great fears of the Sicknesse here in the City’: Researching news in the 1665 plague during a pandemic

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Nikki Clarke. She is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Nikki’s research focuses on how people gathered and assessed news in seventeenth-century England. You can find her on Twitter at @nikkiclarke1.

Reliable information takes on even greater significance in a time of pandemic, when rumour and fake news can have a serious impact on the decisions that people make for their own safety and that of their community. I have spent most of the last year researching the news sources available during the plague of 1665, and how both the authorities and citizens gathered news and judged its accuracy.[1] I have issued myself strong warnings about avoiding anachronistic comparisons with the current pandemic but there are some issues that still have a resonance today.

Londoners dealing with the outbreak of the 1665 plague would have viewed their situation through different intellectual and theological lenses from the ones we use, but they would have been asking many of the same questions and tackling many of the same decisions.  How close is the plague to my street? Should I stay in the city or l should I leave? Are the restrictions on my daily life effective in tackling the disease, or are they a huge economic burden, or both?

John Dunstall, plague broadsheet (1666). Copyright, Museum of London, object 42.39/142.

The primary official sources for news on the plague were the Bills of Mortality.  It is probably anachronistic to describe their weekly publication as the seventeenth-century equivalent of the daily Number 10 briefing. Yet watching those briefings in the spring of 2020 did help me to understand the need of Essex vicar Ralph Josselin to note in his diary almost every weekly bill from May 1665 to December 1666.

There was much contemporary scepticism about the accuracy of the Bills, even as people found them essential for tracking the trend and the spread of the disease. Personal experience was giving Londoners, like John Evelyn and the excluded minister and unlicenced physician John Allin, information which didn’t always tally with the Bills.  The parish clerks provided the figures, but as Samuel Pepys discovered, they did not always report accurate ones. On 30 August 1665, he was told by the clerk of his parish that ‘there died nine this week, though I have returned but six’. Pepys described this as a ‘very ill practice’ that made him ‘think it is so in other places, and therefore the plague is much greater then [sic] people take it to be.’

What ordinary Londoners thought of the Bills’ accuracy is much harder to determine. Future historians of the Covid pandemic may have access to the endless global social media debates about figures and appropriate public health restrictions, but historians of the 1665 plague are not so blessed. We have excellent archival and print records of how the London elite and how many of the middling sort, especially those in the medical professions and the dissenting clergy, experienced the plague. But we have a disproportionate amount of material from these social groups, many of whom did not stay in the heart of the city during the crisis, when compared to those who had no alternative but to remain.

The public health restriction that caused most grief for people in 1665 was the shutting up of infected households, with both sick and healthy inhabitants, for forty days from the last plague death. Two of the key medical practitioners who remained in the city during the crisis, the physician Nathaniel Hodges and the apothecary William Boghurst, were both sceptical about the effectiveness of shutting up the healthy with the sick in preventing transmission, especially in houses where it was impossible to isolate the infected.

In the early days of the outbreak, the citizens in of St Giles in the Field took matters into their own hands. When the Ship Tavern was shut up and a red cross put on its door what was described as a ‘ryett’ broke out, the cross was ripped off the door and ‘the door opened in a vicious manner and the people of the house permitted to go abroad into the streets promiscuously with others’.[2] Civil disturbance was one of the greatest concerns of the government of Charles II, so it is perhaps no great shock that the event was not reported in the two official news books of the day.

Many normal places of oral news exchange were lost to people during the plague, markets and fares were stopped, street selling was restricted and people not only lost the commodities that were being sold but the news and gossip that the hawkers would have shared as they moved from parish to parish. Vintners, inn, tavern and ale-house keepers were ordered not to entertain customers, though it was still possible to order food and drink at home – take-away is not a twenty-first-century phenomenon. Pepys managed to maintain his extensive and diverse news network, even after he moved out of the City to Woolwich in September. His contacts ranged from the Duke of York via his favourite taverns and coffee houses – which frankly he continued to frequent when discretion might well have been the better part of valour – to the watermen who carried him between them all. Clearly, this is not just Pepys’s network, it was a network of all those connected to him and puts for example, Payne, one of his favourite watermen, potentially only one source away from the Duke of York.

The medium of news transmission that all seventeenth-century Londoners shared, perhaps even more ubiquitous than the mobile of today, was the church bell.  The sound that informed their experience of the plague and deaths of their fellow citizens was the continual ringing of the passing and the tolling bell. Pepys wrote in September, the worst month of the plague, that ‘little noise heard day or night but the tolling of the bells’.  Nathaniel Hodges said ‘the bells seemed hoarse with continual tolling until at least they ceased’.

Perhaps the most poignant sound might have been silence, if a Cambridge student, Samuel Hearne, is to believed. He said that in St Giles in the Fields in July of 1665, they stopped the bellman who accompanied the burial cart round the street from ringing his bell because ‘there dye so many that the bell would hardly ever stop ringing’.[3]

Further Reading

Bell, Walter George. The Great Plague in London in 1665 (revised edn, 1951)

Boghurst, William. Loimographia. An account of the Great Plague of London in the year 1665…. Now first printed from the British Museum Sloane MS. 349, for the Epidemiological Society of London. Joseph Frank Payne, ed. (1894)

Graunt, John. London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of All the Bills of Mortality for This Present Year (1665)

Hodges, Nathaniel. Loimologia; or, an Historical Account of the Plague in London in 1665 … (London, 1720)

Moote, A. Lloyd, and Dorothy C. Moote. The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year (2004)

Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Robert Latham and William Matthews, eds (1970-1983), vol. VI (1665) Slack, Paul. The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (1985)


[1] The quotation in the post’s title comes from Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Robert Latham and William Matthews, eds (1970-1983), vol. VI. p. 93.

[2] The National Archives, PC 2/58 114 118

[3] J.R Wade (ed.), Clare College Letters and Documents (1903), p. 64

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