The Great Plague was Britain’s last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1665 and 1666. No treatment or cure was available, and victims were quarantined in their homes. Official records list 68,576 deaths resulting from the plague, but thousands of undocumented victims died, and most experts agree that the actual number of deaths is about 100,000.
Bubonic plague was well known to the people of 17th century England. The Black Death of the 14th century, which swept through Europe and killed almost a third of the population, was still widely discussed, and outbreaks were an annual occurrence. It was a terrible disease with no cure, quickly taking over the body with pains and fever, killing the victim within a matter of days.
Although the disease was well known, it was not well understood. There were a number of popular theories of infection, each with their own recommended prevention measures. Nosegays were sniffed to counter poisons in the air, and animals that were considered potential carriers were killed. Fires were lit to burn away the contagion, and tobacco smoke was believed to help. Others appealed to God in prayer or turned to superstition, wearing magic amulets for protection.
In actual fact, the disease was carried by rats, or rather, by fleas living on the rats. During the years leading up to the Great Plague, London’s population boomed, and the rat population grew as well. When cats and dogs, believed at the time to be disease carriers, were killed by the tens of thousands, rats no longer faced urban predators, allowing the rat population to grow unrestrained.
London’s Great Plague began just outside the city walls, in a parish called St. Giles-in-the-Fields. The first case was discovered in April 1665. By May’s end, the number of victims had grown to 11. These victims were locked in their own homes, and a red cross was painted on the door. Still, the number of cases continued to rise across St. Giles-in-the-Fields, and by July, the disease was within the city walls.
After a house was marked with the cross, the entire family was quarantined. With no hope of cure or recovery, this was a death sentence. Guards were posted to prevent people from fleeing quarantined homes. Bodies were left in the street at night for collection. Men with carts would call out “Bring out your dead” and would carry the bodies away to one of the plague pits.
By September 1665, the Great Plague had reached its peak, with more than 8,000 official reports of death that month. Cold winter weather brought a respite from the disease, but deaths continued into 1666, especially in outlying communities. Finally, by September 1666, the outbreak appeared to be over. Coincidentally, the Great Fire of London occurred in this month, but it does not appear that the fire brought the Great Plague to an end.