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Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Great Plague of London

Between 1664 and 1666 the Great Plague devastated London and southeast England. In the summer of 1665, alone some 75,000 of the 400,000 citizens of London died of the plague.

Flea transmitted infection bred in the ditches, rubbish tips and sewers outside the city of London's walls.

Collecting the dead for burial during the Great Plague

One treatment was to place several female chicks in sequence upon the abscess. The tail feathers of each chick were plucked thereby drawing out the venom. As each bird became infected and died, another replaced it, until a chick escaped infection. At this stage it was hoped the patient would recover.

A preventive strategy was the wearing of bay leaves. For over a thousand years many had a belief in the protective power of bay trees based on the observation by the Romans that they never seemed to get struck by lightning. The British were among those who took up this superstition and during epidemics such as the Great Plague the worried public wore bay leaves to keep the disease away or "at bay".

The English cleric Richard Baxter wrote in 1665, "At first few of the religious sort were taken away. They began to get puffed up and boast of the great differences, which God did make. But quickly after that they fell alike."

In 1665 the plague arrived at the village of Eyam in Derbyshire in a bundle of cloth that came from London, and within a month 23 people had died. The 350 locals were hysterical with fear so the local vicar, William Mompesson, called a meeting of the villagers. He explained that if they fled in an attempt to escape the plague they would take the infection with them and spread it further to the north of England. The decision was made by the villagers to cut themselves off from contact with others to prevent the epidemic from spreading further. They even held their church services in the open air as they felt it was too dangerous to meet in enclosed spaces. After 16 months of isolation during which 259 villagers died, the plague subsided and their selflessness noted.

In 1666 the Great Fire Of London helped to check the plague in London by destroying many of the rubbish tips where the disease was breeding.

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