The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

In 1722, Daniel Defoe published his A Journal of the Plague Year (Dover Thrift), a document of the Great Plague that had ravaged London fifty-seven years earlier. Astute readers would immediately have noted that Defoe would have only been five years old when the Plague struck. Defoe was offering his readership a copiously researched yet fictionalised account of that terrible time. With his journalistic background, he was perfectly suited for this task.

Alice Ford-Smith led a guided walk in the shadow of Defoe's great novel. Starting at Tower Hill and ending two-and-a-half hours later at Bunhill Fields, this was a well-organised affair under the auspices of the Guildhall Library. Alice interspersed a slightly energetic walk about the City of London with breaks where she discussed Defoe's life and times, the Plague years themselves, and recounted stories of the common people affected by the last pestilence in the City. Defoe, she said, narrated his tale through the voice of a single businessman H.F., who watched events unfold and tried to document them to the best of his ability.

Tower Hill to Muscovy Street (past Trinity House) to Seething Lane Garden where one finds a bust of Samuel Pepys, who himself had survived the Plague of 1665.

Defoe's narrator, H.F., discussed the symptoms of the infection, noting that it affected different people differently.
And here I must observe also that the plague, as I suppose all distempers do, operated in a different manner on differing constitutions; some were immediately overwhelmed with it, and it came to violent fevers, vomitings, insufferable headaches, pains in the back, and so up to ravings and ragings with those pains; others with swellings and tumours in the neck or groin, or armpits, which till they could be broke put them into insufferable agonies and torment; while others, as I have observed, were silently infected, the fever preying upon their spirits insensibly, and they seeing little of it till they fell into swooning, and faintings, and death without pain. 1
He was not to know, of course, (for the uncovering of the causes and types of the plague would take another couple of hundred years), but there were indeed three types of the pestilence: bubonic, pneumonic, and almost completely fatal septicaemic, and he described all three.

Seething Lane Garden to St. Olave's Church

This was Pepys' "Our own church", and centre of a parish that suffered terribly during the plague. Victims were initially buried with the usual ceremony, but the church grounds quickly ran out of space, and by then there were few people willing to stick around to minister to the dying. To their lasting shame, Church of England priests escaped the city at the first sign of the disease, abandoning their flocks to spiritual blackness. Defoe himself was of Dissenter stock, people who did not accept the Church of England, and who had been expelled in 1662. Seeing how the priesthood gave up their duties when the plague arrived, the Church recalled Dissenter preachers to provide succour to the masses, only to expel them once again when, after the plague died down, the cowardly mainstream priests returned. One can discern remnants of the bitterness that remained with Defoe and his fellow Dissenters at this base treachery.

Defoe as a Dissenter, then, would not have worshipped at St. Olave's. But it is in this parish that the first recorded death - of a Mary Ramsey - occurs. Today visitors stand on the covered graves of the victims, a fact that becomes obvious when they observe the steps that lead down to the front door of the church.

Left onto Crutched Friars to Hart Street to St Mark Lane to Star Alley to the Tower of All-Hallows Staining

The Church of All-Hallows Staining was one of the very few to survive the Great Fire of London, but only a few years later it collapsed, its foundations having been undermined by the pressure of all the dead bodies buried in the yard around it. Here in 1664 and 1665, as on other churches in the City, a helpful and hopeful administration put up bills of advice to the panicking Londoners.

What was the advice given to the citizens? At first, it was to evacuate the City. Two hundred thousand Londoners legged it to nearby villages such as Dulwich and Greenwich, and farther afield to Norwich. Of course, they carried the plague with them as well. Those who could not leave the city faced official measures to control the outbreak. Theatre was banned, no congregations were allowed, streets were cleaned of animal dung and fruit and vegetable remains on a daily basis. Pubs were allowed to stay open, but only till nine o'clock at night. These measures were no different from those enforced during previous outbreaks; they had been ineffective then and continued to be useless now, a sad reflection on the lack of progress in understanding the causes of this epidemic in the intervening decades.

H.F. reported that a man locked himself up in Charterhouse for seven months and survived; he himself had considered doing the same, and had amassed enough provisions to be able to do so. But his curiosity overcame his caution, and he ranged abroad and studied and observed.

Civil measures were 'enhanced' by pseudo-medical advice. "Certain Necessary Directions for the Preservation and Cure of the Plague", these advice sheets were called. People were urged to smoke. At Eton College, school-boys were punished severely if they didn't. People were urged to eschew cucumbers and melons and cherries. They were encouraged to consume garlic. H.F. talks about a husband who sucked on garlic and smoked all day, while the wife bathed herself in vinegar. It may not have been pleasant to be in their company, but they might very well have survived.

People were encouraged to contract syphilis! Rumours abounded that exposure to this sexually transmitted disease would ameliorate the effects of the plague. Some doctors scoffed at this thought, wondering why anyone would endanger their body and soul with such recklessness. But there may have been an element of fatalism in the face of so virulent a pestilence. If one is bound to die, perhaps one might as well do so after some hearty bonking?

Left onto Fenchurch Street to Lime Street through Leadenhall Market onto Cornhill past St. Michael's Church into St. Michael's Alley

People who lived separated from their neighbours by wide streets tended to have, on average, a lower mortality rate than those who lived in narrow bylanes (such as St. Michael's Alley). The former's mortality was approximately one person per household; in the crowded little streets, three people on average perished in a household. Quarantine was rigidly enforced - a large painted cross on a front door marked a house where a case of plague had been detected; the family of the sufferer were barricaded in, the front door locked and a guard posted in front. For forty days, they would be imprisoned. The feeling was that at the end of that period, they would either have survived the plague, or died from it, and were no longer a danger.
That if any House be Infected, the sick person or persons be forthwith removed to the said pest-house, sheds, or huts, for the preservation of the rest of the Family: And that such house (though none be dead therein) be shut up for fourty days, and have a Red Cross, and Lord have mercy upon us, in Capital Letters affixed on the door, and Warders appointed, as well to find them necessaries, as to keep them from conversing with the sound. That at the opening of each Infected house (after the expiration of the said Fourty Days) a White Cross be affixed on the said door, there to remain Twenty days more; during which time, or at least before any stranger be suffered to lodge therein, That the said house be well Fumed, Washed and Whited all over within with Lime; And that no Clothes, or Householdstuff be removed out of the said house into any other house, for at least Three months after, unless the persons so Infected have occasion to change their habitation. 2
Most households were unprepared for this incarceration; their lack of free movement meant that they were dependent on their neighbours for provisions and medical help, neither of which, in the panic, might be forthcoming. The stifling atmosphere no doubt engendered despair and desperation. People tried to get around their difficulties by attempting to bribe the guard, or sneaking out by way of the roof or backyards. One family, incensed by the guard's lack of cooperation, blew him up and absconded.

But people who escaped might have been infected, and would perish nonetheless. They would do so isolated, for nobody would come near them. They would collapse on the streets and die, and the infection would continue to spread. Meanwhile, it became more and more expensive to maintain the quarantines (would-be guards were more and more terrified of dying themselves and were reluctant to oblige); eventually, the policy of locking-up was rescinded.

Through Castle Court to Ball Court back to Cornhill to the Royal Exchange

Daniel Defoe was no stranger to the commercial heart of London, now occupied by the Royal Exchange. He was, for about forty years, a merchant of hosiery, and not too successful either. He was easily led into speculative ventures and spurious possibilities for profit, and tried to expand into horses and wine and even a diving machine that would supposedly make him wealthy. He was ruined and declared bankrupt in 1692, owing £17,000, a staggering sum. Despite being thrown into Newgate prison and paying off some of his debt, he was never entirely free from his creditors. A second bankruptcy in the early 1700s meant that they were to pursue him for the rest of his life.

To supplement his income, Defoe began to write, and he did so copiously. Nearly 350 manuscripts are known, from pamphlets to essays to books. In 1702, he wrote an anonymous satirical piece titled "Shortest Way With the Dissenters", in which he suggested that the best way to get rid of the Dissenters, who at the time were looked upon with suspicion and loathing by the general church-going populace, was not to pass laws against them, but to kill them all. Unfortunately for him, the note was taken seriously by hot-headed Anglican conservatives in office, and - when he was outed as the author 3 - even his co-religionists became upset with him. The satire was entirely missed. Defoe was arrested and convicted of seditious libel, fined heavily, and sentenced to three hours in three different stocks in the City.

Now this was a serious punishment - the convict's head and hands would be locked in place between wooden boards in public, and he would remain at the mercy of the passers-by. There had been cases of stoning resulting in the blinding or even death of prisoners. Defoe, faced with this terrible possibility, did not panic. He wrote a "Hymn to the Pillory", in which he claimed to be a champion of the downtrodden citizenry campaigning for their right to free speech.
"Actions receive their tincture from the times,
And as they change are virtues made of crimes."
This became so popular that, far from smashing his head in when he was put in the stock, the citizens of London crowded around him, casting flowers upon him, selling his pamphlet in large numbers, and protecting him from the violent elements.

Defoe, despite the brisk sale of his oeuvre, still didn't have enough money to pay the fine, so he was whisked off to Newgate prison once again. This time, however, Queen Anne came to his rescue. She paid his fine, and offered some monies to his family so that they might not want. So taken with him was the Queen that he was offered a post in the government offices. He even became a spy, which just goes to show that in Defoe's case at least, fact was more fabulous than any fiction.

Royal Exchange to Lothbury to Basinghall Street to the Guildhall

In the archives of the Guildhall, one can find the plague records meticulously maintained by the various parishes of the City. St Olave's parish provides an example of the staggering casualties during that terrible year. In August 1664, when the plague began to seethe first, two pages of the church death register were filled with the names of the dead. A year later, ninety-eight pages were filled with the names of the victims. There are about 30 names to a page; evidently, nearly three thousand people perished in just one parish in a single month.

Turn from Gresham Street right onto St Martin le Grand through Postman's Park and Watt's Memorial right onto King Edward Street to Little Britain through Smithfield Market right onto Charterhouse Street and onto Sutton's Hospital at Charterhouse Square

It was estimated that ten percent of London's population of half a million died in the first two months of the plague. By the time it died down, nearly a fifth of the population had been wiped out. People were dying so fast and the survivors so panicked that burials and spiritual support pretty much collapsed. The great plague pits that had been covered up after the previous visitation of the disease were reopened. One of them lies underneath the private garden in the middle of Charterhouse Square. Every night, plague carts plied the streets of the City carting the dead off to be tossed into the pits. During the day, the pits would be covered with lime. Upon hearing the carters' cry "Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!", families would wrap their dead in cloth and put them on the alleys outside their homes; carcasses of people who died on the street were picked up by the carters. The near and dear of the victims were banned from coming anywhere near the plague pits: many, in their despair, wanted to throw themselves into them and end their misery, but suicide of course was a deadly sin.

There is a story of a merry piper who fell asleep, completely drunk, in a street one day, and was picked up by a plague cart. The tale doesn't end unhappily for him, however, as he revived before he was tossed into a pit and avoided the terror of being buried alive and suffocation.

Left onto Carthusian Street and past the Sutton Arms pub (dating from 1611) to Aldersgate Street through the Barbican past Defoe House and Speed House and Bunhill Row into Bunhill Cemetery

What prompted Defoe to write about the Great Plague nearly sixty years after the events he described? It might have been the news of an epidemic raging in France in 1720 that concentrated his mind, fully aware as he was of the extreme contagiousness of the dread disease. As it happened, the plague of 1665 was the last major outbreak of the pestilence in London. Defoe's book remains, however, a superbly detailed and rich account of those terrible times.

Bunhill Cemetery was one of the burial grounds in London for the Dissenters. Daniel Defoe was interred there, as was William Blake. He died a deeply unhappy impoverished man (facing, he wrote, insupportable sorrow) for he was hounded to the end by his creditors. He was buried under another name, possibly to put the creditors off track: they were known to dig up a debtor's body and ransom it for repayment from the grieving family. A collection from the children of London to honour their much-loved writer of Robinson Crusoe raised enough money for a grand obelisk to be erected in his name. Visitors to Bunhill cemetery can still see it today.


1. Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
2. Rules and Orders ... for prevention of the spreading of the Infection of the PLAGUE.
3. Ashley Marshall, The Generic Context of Defoe's The Shortest-Way With the Dissenters and the Problem of Irony, The Review of English Studies, August 4, 2009.


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