Cambridge and the Plague

A friend kindly reminded me that his college, Trinity Hall (1350), as well as Gonville Hall (1348), Corpus Christi (1352) and Clare Hall (1359), were founded in a large part to remedy the terrible lack of clergy, nearly half of whom had died in the Black Death. Although I could not find a first person account on-line – libraries and archives currently being closed – I wanted to write something about the plague in my home town, so the following material is to a considerable extent taken from an excellent article by Raymond Williamson, The Plague in Cambridge, a paper read on May 3rd, 1956 to the Cambridge History of Medicine Society.

The plague entered England in 1348 and persisted intermittently until about 1666. The south east of England – then a very wealthy part of the country –  including Cambridge, was particularly badly affected. No-one knew the reason for the plague: there were a number of theories and over the centuries a considerable body of medical literature evolved. It was generally considered to be caused by bad or corrupt air, in the case of Cambridge, rising from the fens, or by corruption in general. It was because of this that Henry VI did not come to lay the foundation stone of King’s College Chapel:

….we had disposed to be there in our owne person. Nevertheless for aier and ye Pestilence that have long regned in our said Universite, we come not there at this time….

The second theory was supported by the filth of Cambridge and the absolute inability of the Council, down the centuries, to get to grips with rubbish collection. In fact, this is probably correct. Gorge-rising descriptions of the state of the streets and water courses – especially the river and the King’s Ditch, a defence work that curved in an arc roughly from behind St Botolph’s to join the Cam beyond the Round Church – suggest that the town must have been overrun with rats, although the connection was not, of course, then known.

The original charter of the town granted by Henry III in 1267, made provision that:

“…the town should be cleansed from dirt and filth and kept clean, and that the water-course should be opened and kept open as of old time it was used, so that the filth might run off.”

The battle seems to have been a hopeless one. In 1330, the University complained to the Mayor and the equivalent of the Town Council about the appalling dirt, and complaints escalated after 1348. In the Black Death, it was the densely populated area around Castle Hill which had the worst mortality rate, leaving it virtually abandoned afterwards. Three years later, the University was lamenting the terrible difficulty of getting food and other necessities because of the disappearance of so many trades and restrictions on movement.

 In 1502, 266 people had to answer charges of major abuses of public hygiene. This figure included not only butchers dumping filth, guts, entrails and blood in the streets or the water courses, but also the President of Michael House (opposite Caius College).

The Vice-Chancellor, writing in 1574, speculated that the water courses were a factor, since the disease was more prevalent in their vicinity and produced a map and a plan for dealing with the problem, adding: “I do greatly desire to see this thinge brought to passe which hath been so longe tyme wished for of many” It did not come into effect, however, for another 40 years and part of the water for flushing out the system was used in the fountain in of the Market Place, known as Hobson’s Conduit, now on the corner of Lensfield Road.

In the last great plague epidemic around 1666, it was the densely populated area in the parish of Great St Andrew’s (present-day Grand Arcade) that was the most affected and it was repeatedly noted in Cambridge, as elsewhere, that although the well-to-do were far from exempt, the highest mortality rates lay among the poor.

Numerous efforts were made to control, as well as prevent outbreaks. Unsure of exactly how the disease spread, the authorities tried to prevent people moving about the country. Road blocks were set up, travellers checked for signs of disease and, insofar as possible, those coming from affected parts of the country refused admission. Even letters were suspect and if sent at all, had to be carefully fumigated. A Mr Mead of Christ’s College wrote in July, 1625:

‘It grows very dangerus on both sides to continue an Intercourse of Letters: not knowing what hands they passe through before they come to those to whom they are sent. Our Hobson and the rest should have been forbidden this week, but that the message came too late.”

Hobson being, of course the famous carrier and origin of the expression “Hobson’s Choice.”

Among other efforts at prevention were street fires, something recommended by Hippocrates c.400 B.C., believed to purify the air, and they were lit regularly, with buckets of water provided in case they got out of hand. And, of course, there was social distancing.

The market was moved to Butt Green on the outskirts, public assemblies of all kinds were forbidden and people were not allowed to attend any church but the one in their own parish. In some churches the windows were even taken out to provide better ventilation.

As regards those who fell ill, the Vice-Chancellor of the University wrote as follows:

“For the present state of the town the sickness is much scattered, but we follow your lordships counsel to keep the sound from the sick; to which purpose we have built nere 40 booths in a remote place upon our commons, whether we forthwith remove those that are infected, where we have placed a German physician who visits them day and night and he ministers to them: besides constables we have certain ambulatory officers who walk the streets night and day to keep our people from needless conversing, and to bring us notice of all disorders, through God’s great mercy the number of those who die weekly is not great to the total number of the inhabitants. Thirty one hath been the highest number in a week and that but once. This late tempestuous rainy weather hath scattered it into some places and they die fast, so that I fear an increase this week.”

Plague huts to isolate those who had fallen ill or were suspected of showing symptoms, were set up originally on Midsummer Common and, at a later date, in the area of Coldham’s Lane.

In Cambridge, the plague had additional social consequences. As soon as mortality rates began to rise, all schools and the university closed, because of the prohibition on assemblies and, for their own safety, the majority of the scholars moved out to the countryside. This resulted in such great distress for the poorer inhabitants of the town, who worked for or were supported by the University, that in the terrible outbreak of 1630, King Charles I wrote as follows, accompanying the letter with a donation:

 …the distressed inhabitants of our said Towne of Cambridge are left in great mysery and decay: for the universitie, fearing the rage there of have broken up and left their colledges, and the number of poore people in the said towne beinge very great: and many of them aged and impotent and such as whilest the schollars continued there had much reliefe by means of them, now the colledges being left are like to famish and many others of our said poore subjects who heretofore lived by their commerce and trafique as well with the schollers as with the country, and maintained themselves and families in good sort and did help and releeve others, are nowe by this grievous visitacion brought into great want, and their trading with the Countrey being now (out of a kind of necessity) wholly forborne they also are forced to crave reliefe so as the whole number that perceive reliefe and maintenance are about 2,800 persons (besides those that are visited with the plague) the charge whereof doth and will amount to 150l [£150 = c.£20 000 today] a week, at the least, which charge the university and towne are noe ways able to disburse, there being not above seaven score persons at the most of the said inhabitants that are able any longer to contribute towards their releife; theire states being much weakened by the daily taxacions already laid upon them for the meaintenance of the visited persons and other poore people….

After 1666, Cambridge was spared further visitations of bubonic plague, but cholera and other diseases persisted, as well as complaints about the state of the water courses, cleaning of the streets and rubbish collection.

With many thanks to John Pollard for reminding me of the role of the plague in the foundation of various colleges and to Jane Cowan for the photograph of the Cam today.

N.B. In case I have infringed copyright on any occasion, please notify me and I will immediately delete the post.

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