Pestilence – We’ve Been Here Before

Obelisk recording the great plague of 1665-6, Winchester


At a time when the world is being ravaged by the Covid-19 coronavirus, it is interesting to look back at previous diseases that have changed the world order.

A graphic idea of what was involved can be found in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which recounts the “pestilence” of 1665-6, although it was not published until 1720. No one is sure whether the book is fiction or was based on a diary of an uncle, Henry Foe.

There are many passages in the book which, with a slight change of wording, could have been written today, such as: ‘As for my little family, having thus, as I have said, laid in a store of bread, butter, cheese, and beer, I took my friend and physician’s advice and locked myself up, and my family, and resolved to suffer the hardship of living a few months without flesh-meat, rather than purchase it at the hazard of our lives.’

Defoe’s Journal describes measures taken in 1665-6 to limit the infection, by locking victims into their houses, with squads of officials to police the streets and remove the dead – examiners, searchers, watchmen and chirurgeons (barber surgeons).

In the early stages of the disease the Privy Council commanded the Royal College of Physicians to give the best medical advice. With some optimism, a 44-page booklet Certain Necessary Directions for the Cure of the Plague (we would now say quack cures) and methods for limiting infection from “effluvia” was rushed out in a fortnight and handed out free.

A few years later, a scientific account of the great plague was written by Dr Nathaniel Hodges, one of the few physicians who did not flee the capital. A translation of 1720 was entitled  Loimologia, or An Historical Account…With precautionary Directions against the like Contagion. In the same volume was included An Essay on the Different Causes of Pestilential Disease, though it was to be 200 years before anyone identified the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

Some people saw the plague as a message from God, a warning about the consequences of sin, and prayed fervently for forgiveness, as explored later in books like the Rev Thomas Vincent’s God’s Terrible Voice in the City.

Others people resorted to desperate cures sold by unscrupulous quacks, whilst Charles II and his court simply moved out of the capital and took up residence in Oxford.

In Hampshire, the most tangible reminder of the great plague is a monument that stands beside the county council headquarters in Winchester.  It is on the site of a market cross where, during the plague, people collected goods and left money in payment. Inscriptions tell its story.


Was founded

On the 26th of August 1669

For the relief of


Of their Fellow Citizens

Who died in the great Plague

Its funds are entirely derived from


And are annually appropriated

To the charitable purpose of


Inscription on the monument

A year after the plague had abated, a feast was held in August in St John’s House, Winchester, to raise money for the widows and orphans left in its wake. It was the start of the Society of Natives, which continued to raise money for charity for 300 years.

At the feast 63 men each contributed 1s.6d. and sat down to a hearty meal, accompanied by music from Thomas and John Vinn, but it only raised enough money to apprentice one orphan, Austin Winnall (Barbara Carpenter Turner, HRO, 120M94W/D96)

Sir Henry Tichborne contributed 10s, venison and “half a buck”, whilst the warden of Winchester College, Dr William Burt, chipped in with a hogshead of beer. Later, the feast came to be held every year and covered two days. In 1731, for example, there were than 52 different dishes on offer.

The other great pestilence came too early for many formal records. This was the Black Death, which entered Hampshire ports in about 1348. Its tide can be traced in the record. About 80 per cent of people died in Titchfield, which was then a working port on the river Meon. In Bishops Waltham it was 65 percent and in the small hamlet of Quob, near Wickham, not a single person survived.

As detailed in The Black Death in Hampshire by Tom James (1999, Hampshire Record Office, ISBN, 1-85975-317-5), many other settlements in the county were so weakened that they eventually disappeared, like Abbotstone, Faccombe Netherton and many others on the list of some 90 “deserted medieval villages” recognised by archaeologists.

The population of Southampton may have halved, but recovered in the following century. Winchester was similarly affected, but the collapse precipitated a dramatic downturn. Its population took 500 years to recover.

Most epidemics leave their traces.  In 1918, when war had claimed many lives it was Spanish ‘flu that came along and added to the misery. One of the victims was William Walker, the diver who had worked for years in murky waters to save Winchester Cathedral, only to die at the early age of 51.


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