Samuel Pepys – The Great Plague London 1665

I had not planned to quote The Diary of Samuel Pepys, because it is so well known, but several people told me he should by no means be left out. His account is remarkable, because in spite of living through an epidemic which is estimated to have killed as many as 100 000 people out of the London population of c.450 000, he continued his normal life almost unchanged. The plague was endemic in London and so, as in other years, he sent his wife out of town for the dangerous summer months and theatres (his great passion) were closed, but most of his daily diary entries continue to be taken up with work, his travels around London and out to shipyards at Deptford and Greenwich, news of Anglo-Dutch hostilities, music, social occasions, including an important wedding he helped to organize, shopping and opportunities for flirtation. The plague is always there, but very much a backdrop. He notes its increase with disquiet, but not panic, as well as the gradual emptying of London, the closing of shops and the departure of King and Court and, eventually, his own Naval Offices. His cold-blooded calm and acceptance of what is going on around him, well aware he may be struck down at any moment is in remarkable contrast to modern reactions.

1.7.1665

Thence to Westminster, where I hear the sicknesse encreases greatly….Thence by coach and late at the office, and so to bed. Sad at the newes that seven or eight houses in Bazing Hall Street [in the City] are shut up of the plague.

18.7.1665

I was much troubled this day to hear at Westminster how the officers do bury the dead in the open Tuttle-fields [area south of St James’ Park] pretending want of room elsewhere; whereas the New Chappell churchyard was walled-in at the publick charge in the last plague time, merely for want of room and now none, but such as are able to pay dear for it, can be buried there.

20.7.1665

So walked to Redriffe, where I hear the sickness is, and indeed is scattered almost everywhere, there dying 1089 of the plague this week. My Lady Carteret did this day give me a bottle of plague-water home with me. So home to write letters late, and then home to bed, where I have not lain these 3 or 4 nights………This afternoon I waited on the Duke of Albermarle, and so to Mrs Croft’s where I found and saluted [kissed] Mrs Burrows who is a very pretty woman for a mother of so many children. But, Lord! to see how the plague spreads. It being now all over King’s Streete, at the Axe and next door to it, and in other places.

21.7.1665

So home and late at my chamber, setting some papers in order; the plague growing very raging, and my apprehensions of it great.

22.7.1665

I to Fox-hall [Vauxhall pleasure gardens]…..but I do not see one guest there, the town being so empty of any body to come thither. Only, while I was there, a poor woman come to scold with the master of the house that a kinswoman, I think, of hers, that was newly dead of the plague, might be buried in the church-yard; for, for her part, she should not be buried in the commons, as they said she should……

I met this noon with Dr Burnett [Pepys’ doctor], who told me, and I find in the newsbook this week that he posted upon the ‘Change [Royal Exchange], that whoever did spread the report that, instead of the plague, his servant was by him killed, it was forgery, and shewed me the acknowledgment of the master 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.

26.7.1665

After a little other discourse and the sad news of the death of so many in the parish of the plague, forty last night, the bell always going, I back to the Exchange, where I went up and sat talking with my beauty, Mrs Batelier, a great while, who is indeed one of the finest women I ever saw in my life……

The sicknesse is got into our parish this week, and is got, indeed, every where; so that I begin to think of setting things in order, which I pray God enable me to put both as to soul and body.

27.7.1665

At home met the weekly Bill, where above 1000 encreased in the Bill, and of them, in all about 1,700 of the plague, which hath made the officers this day resolve of sitting at Deptford, which puts me to some consideration what to do. Therefore home to think and consider of every thing about it, and without determining any thing eat a little supper and to bed, full of the pleasure of these 6 or 7 last days.

28.7.1665

Up betimes, and down to Deptford, where, after a little discourse with Sir G.Carteret, who is much displeased with the order of our officers yesterday to remove the office to Deptford, …….But, Lord! to see in what fear all the people here do live would make one mad, they are afeard of us that come to them, insomuch that I am troubled at it, and wish myself away. But some cause they have; for the chaplin, with whom but a week or two ago we were here mighty high disputing, is since fallen into a fever and dead, being gone hence to a friend’s a good way off. A sober and a healthful man. These considerations make us all hasten the marriage, and resolve it upon Monday next, which is three days before we intended it. Mighty merry all of us, and in the evening with full content took coach again and home by daylight with great pleasure, and thence I down to Woolwich, where find my wife well, and after drinking and talking a little we to bed.

29.7.1665

At noon to dinner, where I hear that my Will [Hewer – Pepys manservant/assistant and later close friend] is come in thither and laid down upon my bed, ill of the headake, which put me into extraordinary fear; and I studied all I could to get him out of the house, and set my people to work to do it without discouraging him, and myself went forth to the Old Exchange to pay my fair Batelier for some linnen, and took leave of her, they breaking up shop for a while….

30.7.1665

Will was with me to-day, and is very well again. It was a sad noise to hear our bell to toll and ring so often to-day, either for deaths or burials; I think five or six times.

31.7.1665

Thus I ended this month with the greatest joy that ever I did any in my life, because I have spent the greatest part of it with abundance of joy, and honour, and pleasant journeys, and brave entertainments, and without cost of money; and at last live to see the business ended with great content on all sides…..

Thus we end this month, as I said, after the greatest glut of content that ever I had; only under some difficulty because of the plague, which grows mightily upon us, the last week being about 1700 or 1800 dead of the plague.

3.8.1665

I was forced to stay a great while before I could get my horse brought over, and then mounted and rode very finely to Dagenhams; along the way people, citizens, walking to and again to enquire how the plague is in the City this week by the Bill [recording the mortality rate]; which by chance, at Greenwich, I had heard was 2,020 of the plague, and 3,000 and odd of all diseases; but methought it was a sad question to be so often asked.

Mr. Marr very kindly staying to lead me the way. By and by met my Lord Crew returning, after having accompanied them a little way, and so after them, Mr. Marr telling me by the way how a mayde servant of Mr. John Wright’s (who lives thereabouts) falling sick of the plague, she was removed to an out-house, and a nurse appointed to look to her; who, being once absent, the mayde got out of the house at the window, and run away. The nurse coming and knocking, and having no answer, believed she was dead, and went and told Mr. Wright so; who and his lady were in great strait what to do to get her buried. At last resolved to go to Burntwood hard by, being in the parish, and there get people to do it. But they would not; so he went home full of trouble, and in the way met the wench walking over the common, which frighted him worse than before; and was forced to send people to take her, which he did; and they got one of the pest coaches and put her into it to carry her to a pest house. And passing in a narrow lane, Sir Anthony Browne, with his brother and some friends in the coach, met this coach with the curtains drawn close. The brother being a young man, and believing there might be some lady in it that would not be seen, and the way being narrow, he thrust his head out of his own into her coach, and to look, and there saw somebody look very ill, and in a sick dress, and stunk mightily; which the coachman also cried out upon. And presently they come up to some people that stood looking after it, and told our gallants that it was a mayde of Mr. Wright’s carried away sick of the plague; which put the young gentleman into a fright had almost cost him his life, but is now well again.

10.8.1665

By and by to the office, where we sat all the morning; in great trouble to see the Bill this week rise so high, to above 4,000 in all, and of them above 3,000 of the plague. And an odd story of Alderman Bence’s stumbling at night over a dead corps in the streete, and going home and telling his wife, she at the fright, being with child, fell sicke and died of the plague.

12.8.1665

The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by day-light, the nights not sufficing to do it in. And my Lord Mayor commands people to be within at nine at night all, as they say, that the sick may have liberty to go abroad for ayre. There is one also dead out of one of our ships at Deptford, which troubles us mightily; the Providence fire-ship, which was just fitted to go to sea. But they tell me to-day no more sick on board. And this day W. Bodham tells me that one is dead at Woolwich, not far from the Rope-yard. I am told, too, that a wife of one of the groomes at Court is dead at Salsbury; so that the King and Queene are speedily to be all gone to Milton. God preserve us!

15.8.1665

It was dark before I could get home, and so land at Church-yard stairs, where, to my great trouble, I met a dead corps of the plague, in the narrow ally just bringing down a little pair of stairs. But I thank God I was not much disturbed at it. However, I shall beware of being late abroad again.

16.8.1665

Thence to the Exchange, where I have not been a great while. But, Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the ’Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.

20.8.1665

After church to my inn, and eat and drank, and so about seven o’clock by water, and got between nine and ten to Queenhive, very dark. And I could not get my waterman to go elsewhere for fear of the plague. Thence with a lanthorn, in great fear of meeting of dead corpses, carried to be buried; but, blessed be God, met none, but did see now and then a linke (which is the mark of them) at a distance. So got safe home about 10 o’clock, my people not all abed, and after supper I weary to bed.

22.8.1665

Up, and after much pleasant talke and being importuned by my wife and her two mayds, which are both good wenches, for me to buy a necklace of pearle for her, and I promising to give her one of 60l. in two years at furthest, and in less if she pleases me in her painting, I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead body therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night, and the parish have not appointed any body to bury it; but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing: this disease making us more cruel to one another than if we are doggs.

25.8.1665

This day I am told that Dr. Burnett, my physician, is this morning dead of the plague; which is strange, his man dying so long ago, and his house this month open again. Now himself dead. Poor unfortunate man!

30.8.1665

…. I went forth and walked towards Moorefields to see (God forbid my presumption!) whether I could see any dead corps going to the grave; but, as God would have it, did not. But, Lord! how every body’s looks, and discourse in the street is of death, and nothing else, and few people going up and down, that the towne is like a place distressed and forsaken.

31.8.1665

Up and, after putting several things in order to my removal, to Woolwich; the plague having a great encrease this week, beyond all expectation of almost 2,000, making the general Bill 7,000, odd 100; and the plague above 6,000. I down by appointment to Greenwich, to our office, where I did some business, and there dined with our company …….where a good venison pasty, and after a good merry dinner I to my office, and there late writing letters, and then to Woolwich by water, where pleasant with my wife and people, and after supper to bed.

Thus this month ends with great sadness upon the publick, through the greatness of the plague every where through the kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its encrease. In the City died this week 7,496 and of them 6,102 of the plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead, this week is near 10,000; partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of, through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them.

3.9.1665

Church being done, my Lord Bruncker, Sir J. Minnes, and I up to the Vestry at the desire of the justices of the Peace, Sir Theo. Biddulph and Sir W. Boreman and Alderman Hooker, in order to the doing something for the keeping of the plague from growing; but Lord! to consider the madness of the people of the town, who will (because they are forbid) come in crowds along with the dead corps to see them buried; but we agreed on some orders for the prevention thereof. Among other stories, one was very passionate, methought, of a complaint brought against a man in the towne for taking a child from London from an infected house. Alderman Hooker told us it was the child of a very able citizen in Gracious Street, a saddler, who had buried all the rest of his children of the plague, and himself and wife now being shut up and in despair of escaping, did desire only to save the life of this little child; and so prevailed to have it received stark-naked into the arms of a friend, who brought it (having put it into new fresh clothes) to Greenwich; where upon hearing the story, we did agree it should be permitted to be received and kept in the towne.

4 .9. 1665

….. it troubled me to pass by Coome farme where about twenty-one people have died of the plague, and three or four days since I saw a dead corps in a coffin lie in the Close unburied, and a watch is constantly kept there night and day to keep the people in, the plague making us cruel, as doggs, one to another.

7.9.1665

Up by 5 of the clock, mighty full of fear of an ague, but was obliged to go, and so by water, wrapping myself up warm, to the Tower, and there sent for the Weekely Bill, and find 8,252 dead in all, and of them 6,878 of the plague; which is a most dreadfull number, and shows reason to fear that the plague hath got that hold that it will yet continue among us. Thence to Brainford, reading “The Villaine,” a pretty good play, all the way.

14.9.1685

Where, when I come home I spent some thoughts upon the occurrences of this day, giving matter for as much content on one hand and melancholy on another, as any day in all my life. For the first; the finding of my money and plate, and all safe at London, and speeding in my business of money this day. The hearing of this good news to such excess, after so great a despair of my Lord’s doing anything this year; adding to that, the decrease of 500 and more, which is the first decrease we have yet had in the sickness since it begun: and great hopes that the next week it will be greater. Then, on the other side, my finding that though the Bill in general is abated, yet the City within the walls is encreased, and likely to continue so, and is close to our house there. My meeting dead

corpses of the plague, carried to be buried close to me at noon-day through the City in Fanchurch-street. To see a person sick of the sores, carried close by me by Gracechurch in a hackney-coach. My finding the Angell tavern, at the lower end of Tower-hill, shut up, and more than that, the alehouse at the Tower-stairs, and more than that, the person was then dying of the plague when I was last there, a little while ago, at night, to write a short letter there, and I overheard the mistresse of the house sadly saying to her husband somebody was very ill, but did not think it was of the plague. To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself. To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams, to know how they did there, is dead of the plague; and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water (and I believe he did get his infection that day at Brainford), and is now dead of the plague. To hear that Captain Lambert and Cuttle are killed in the taking these ships; and that Mr. Sidney Montague is sick of a desperate fever at my Lady Carteret’s, at Scott’s-hall. To hear that Mr. Lewes hath another daughter sick. And, lastly, that both my servants, W. Hewer and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St. Sepulchre’s parish, of the plague this week, do put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason. But I put off the thoughts of sadness as much as I can, and the rather to keep my wife in good heart and family also. After supper (having eat nothing all this day) upon a fine tench of Mr. Shelden’s taking, we to bed.

15.9.1665

…..and there drank a cup of good drink, which I am fain to allow myself during this plague time, by advice of all, and not contrary to my oathe, my physician being dead, and chyrurgeon out of the way, whose advice I am obliged to take, and so by water home and eat my supper, and to bed, being in much pain to think what I shall do this winter time; for go every day to Woolwich I cannot, without endangering my life; and staying from my wife at Greenwich is not handsome.

16.9.1665

At noon to dinner to my Lord Bruncker, where Sir W. Batten and his Lady come, by invitation, and very merry we were, only that the discourse of the likelihood of the increase of the plague this weeke makes us a little sad, but then again the thoughts of the late prizes make us glad.

18.9.1665

I hear by every body how much my poor Lord of Sandwich was concerned for me during my silence a while, lest I had been dead of the plague in this sickly time.

19.9.1665

About 4 or 5 of the clock we come to Greenwich, and, having first set down my Lord Bruncker, Cocke and I went to his house, it being light, and there to our great trouble, we being sleepy and cold, we met with the ill newes that his boy Jacke was gone to bed sicke, which put Captain Cocke and me also into much trouble, the boy, as they told us, complaining of his head most, which is a bad sign it seems. So they presently betook themselves to consult whither and how to remove him. However I thought it not fit for me to discover too much fear to go away, nor had I any place to go to. So to bed I went and slept till 10 of the clock and then comes Captain Cocke to wake me and tell me that his boy was well again. With great joy I heard the newes and he told it, so I up and to the office where we did a little, and but a little business.

20.9.1665

Called up by Captain Cocke (who was last night put into great trouble upon his boy’s being rather worse than better, upon which he removed him out of his house to his stable), who told me that to my comfort his boy was now as well as ever he was in his life.

………

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! And, which is worst of all, the Duke showed us the number of the plague this week, brought in the last night from the Lord Mayor; that it is encreased about 600 more than the last, which is quite contrary to all our hopes and expectations, from the coldness of the late season. For the whole general number is 8,297, and of them the plague 7,165; which is more in the whole by above 50, than the biggest Bill yet; which is very grievous to us all.

21.9.1665

Up between five and six o’clock; and by the time I was ready, my Lord’s coach comes for me; and taking Will Hewer with me, who is all in mourning for his father, who is lately dead of the plague, as my boy Tom’s is also, I set out, and took about 100l. with me to pay the fees there, and so rode in some fear of robbing.

 24.9.1665

By and by to dinner about 3 o’clock and then I in the cabbin to writing down my journall for these last seven days to my great content, it having pleased God that in this sad time of the plague every thing else has conspired to my happiness and pleasure more for these last three months than in all my life before in so little time. God long preserve it and make me thankful for it! After finishing my Journal), then to discourse and to read, and then to supper and to bed, my mind not being at full ease, having not fully satisfied myself how Captain Cocke will deal with me as to the share of the profits.

30.9.1665

I do end this month with the greatest content, and may say that these last three months, for joy, health, and profit, have been much the greatest that ever I received in all my life in any twelve months almost in my life, having nothing upon me but the consideration of the sicklinesse of the season during this great plague to mortify mee. For all which the Lord God be praised!

3.10.1665

This night I hear that of our two watermen that use to carry our letters, and were well on Saturday last, one is dead, and the other dying sick of the plague. The plague, though decreasing elsewhere, yet being greater about the Tower and thereabouts.

The plague lingered on, but abated through the winter and Pepys mentions it less and less often.

Anyone wishing to read The Diary in full should go to the wonderful website, which originally put up the Diary entries each day on their corresponding date with a vast array of fascinating notes and comments. It can be found at https://www.pepysdiary.com

Claire Tomalin – Samuel Pepys: the Unequalled Self is highly to be recommended for biography and background.

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