Thursday, December 14, 2017

The London Plague 1665

By Brindy Wilcox

Two major events  happened in the winter of 1664.

Firstly, there were sightings of a large comet over London, on which John Gadbury, a distinguished astrologer commented, ‘portends pestiferous and horiible windes and tempests’. An extract from the diary of Samuel Pepys on Thursday 15 December 1664 reads: ‘So to the Coffeehouse, where great talke of the Comet seen in several places’.

Public Domain image via Wikipedia

The second event was the unremarkable recording of the death of Goodwoman Phillips in the parish of Saint Giles in the Fields, outside the City walls of London, on Christmas Eve 1664, where parish searchers pronounced her to have died of the plague. (From: The Great Plague – The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year – A.Lloyd Moote & Dorothy C Moote, John Hopkins University Press 2004.)  Whilst the death would be of concern to the immediate neighbours of Goodwoman Phillips it would not raise concerns with officials, as it was not uncommon for the occasional death from plague to appear on a Bill of Mortality. Old women, known as ‘searchers’, were usually paid pennies by the Parish authorities to determine the cause of death of ordinary people and, with no training, they could be unreliable. These were often elderly female pensioners supported by the local Parish and once the cause of death had been determined they reported it to the parish clerk for inclusion on the London Weekly Bill of Mortality.

Public Domain image via Wikipedia

These events heralded a difficult year for Charles II, who came to the throne in 1660 after the execution of his father, Charles I in 1649 and the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, marking an end to republican rule in England. He is probably better remembered for being on the throne during the Great Plague of 1665 and the Fire of London in 1666 than his role during the Anglo-Dutch wars. He was well renowned for his love of dogs and, in particular, the King Charles spaniel, who took their breed name from him. He was rarely seen going anywhere without some of his beloved dogs and even preferred to be entertained by them during meetings when he should have been attending to state business.

Modern King Charles Spaniels - photo supplied by author

The first recorded deaths of the Great Plague appeared on the London Weekly Bill of Mortality in April 1665. There is some discrepancy as to who this is reported to have been with notations quoting both Rebecca Andrews and Margaret Porteous as being the first, the only consistency being they are both reported to have died on April 12th 1665. By early June 1665 recorded deaths from the plague had risen to 112 in a week across 12 parishes. At the time, it was believed that the plague was being spread by dogs and cats and, in an effort to control the disease, the Lord Mayor issued a decree that from July 1st 1665 all cats and dogs within the City of London were to be killed. Householders were told to kill all of their dogs, regardless of breed, or face prosecution and a special team of dog killers were put in place. In an attempt to control the plague it is rumoured that 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats were slaughtered and that the domestic cat was almost wiped out in London.

The summer of 1665 was one of the hottest driest droughts for many years, ideal conditions for the spread of the plague. By July there were over 1,000 deaths a day from the plague and Samuel Pepys wrote the following 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!” 
The rich had mostly left London to avoid catching the disease, the King and his dogs had gone up to Hampton Court and people needed a Certificate of Health to confirm that they were plague free before they could leave the City of London. These were issued by doctors but, as more and more doctors left London, a black-market trade grew up for people who could afford to pay for a fake certificate. Trade with London had ground to a halt and it was mainly the poor that had nowhere else to go that remained.

Samuel Pepys decided to stay at his home in London, although he did send his wife away to Woolwich during July, when he also made this entry in his diary showing that people would rather admit to murder than admit that they had the plague in their household.

July 22nd 1665
I met this noon with Dr Burnett, who told me, and I find in the news-book this week that he posted upon the Change, that whoever did spread that report that instead of the plague, his servant was by him killed, it was forgery; and showed me the acknowledgement of the maister of the Pest-house that his servant died of a Bubo on his right groine, and two Spots on his right thigh, which is the plague.

The number of deaths peaked in the week of September 19th 1665, when there were 7,185 plague deaths across 126 parishes, with only 4 parishes reportedly being plague-free. Unknown to the authorities the Lord Mayor’s decree had probably made things worse as, rather than the cats and dogs being the problem, it was the fleas that lived on rats - and by killing off the natural predators of the rats the plague had been able to spread more rapidly.

As the winter weather moved in the numbers of deaths began to reduce and winter brought an end to the Great Plague of London. Charles II eventually considered it safe to return to London in February of 1666. Over 100,000 people are estimated to have died from the plague, although in the later weeks record keeping was far from accurate due to the numbers dying.

1665 saw the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in Great Britain with the last recorded death from the plague in 1679. It was removed from the Bills of Mortality as a specific category after 1703.


Born in Settle, North Yorkshire, Brindy Wilcox's love of books started at an early age and she grew up loving the adventures of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven by Enid Blyton. Another fond childhood memory is of Rusty, her very lovable Red Setter dog; she would spend hours sitting with him telling him stories. So, it seems inevitable that, when she decided to write her first novel, it would be about adventurous dogs. She first had an ambition to write a book about 25 years ago but a career in Accountancy kept her busy so that she only found time to start writing a couple of years ago. She chose the self-publish route and one of her proudest moments was when she finally held her completed YA novel, Through Time To London in September 2016.
Amazon Author Page


  1. The product 100 years of the protestant reformation in England? The monasteries were destroyed and they provided medicine for body and souls of the people. Thanks for posting, I shall repost on social media.

  2. In retrospect I think it is amazing the mob didn't lynch Charles II. They blamed his scandalous behavior and Court for the comet, the pest and subsequent fire. I must find out who was in charge of his security and spy network, as I think he/they did a very good job.

    1. Ever read the book "The Lord of the flies", how mob rule happens with out a leader, the king cannot replace The Holy Father..never could, never shall..while there may still be time, we must all pray for the reconciliation of England to Holy Church. Ave Maria..

  3. Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thank you for your comments. I didn't know a great deal about the Plague year until I started my research and was really surprised to read about the decree to kill cats and dogs. I know that it was a punishable offence but so far I have been unable to find out what the punishment was and whether anyone was convicted.


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