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Plague Diary: Samuel Pepys and the Great Sicknesse

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With an eerie resonance to the current crisis, these extracts are from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, April 1665 to November 1666.

SAMUEL Pepys first hears that some houses have been shut up with their occupants on 30 April 1665. He says nothing more till 7 June when ‘This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross . . . the first of the kind I ever saw.’ He warns his wife not to pass that way and takes to chewing tobacco. This in spite of the fact that a few weeks before he had watched a cat being poisoned with tobacco juice at Gresham College. (Don’t ask. The two-year-old Royal Society also discovered that New England rattlesnakes could survive in a vacuum, but whether, using a tube fashioned from quills, a madman could be calmed by a transfusion of sheep’s blood remained an open question, as it does to this day.) Tobacco was thought to be a protection, the illness being attributed to a miasma, not rat fleas. Eton boys who refused to smoke were flogged for it.

People start quitting London and on 17 June Pepys gets a fright when the driver of his hackney coach drops sick and blind from his seat. He hears that ‘bold people’ are deliberately disregarding danger by attending funerals and that those shut up in their homes are leaning out of the windows to breathe on passers-by. A few days later he notes that more are dead in Bell Alley, ‘yet people do think that the number will be fewer in towne than it was last weeke’. In fact the dead increased by more than 50 to 168.

On 23 June the Lord Mayor finally acts: hackney coaches that have carried the sick must be aired for five or six days. Pepys continues to use them but notes that it has become a dangerous journey, ‘the sicknesse increasing mightily’. At the end of the month he moves his wife out of London to Woolwich and is pleased to hear that no one has died there of anything for several months.

He continues hard at work ordering supplies for warships and worrying about how he will get men for them in the winter. On 5 July he writes: ‘Late home and to bed very alonely.’ A couple of days later he assuages his ‘aloneliness’ with £5 worth of books. Three days after that he consoles himself with Mary, ‘a pretty and innocent’ barmaid. He takes her for a coach ride and ‘had what pleasure almost I would have with her’ and gets home ‘weary and sweaty’.

On 6 July the Church stirs itself and orders a fast day on the first Wednesday of every month ‘to avert God’s heavy visitation’. On 13 July Pepys notes that ‘above 700’ had died that week, reliable figures now being published.

Always an early riser (‘up betimes’), he now has an ‘alarum wach’. He chides himself for his childish pleasure in such things. A new diversion presents itself: fixing up two young people whose parents want them to marry. Pepys finds the young man, though 24, a hopeless recipient of his courtship advice. The lady, aged 17, is similarly difficult to rouse telling him she is merely obeying her parents. Never one to mind his own business, Pepys shows the boy how to hold the girl’s hand and what compliments to make. He decides against leaving them alone together in case the boy ‘too much surprise the lady’. The plague carrying off so many clergy, the pair are hastily married at the end of July. Pepys gives the boy last-minute advice before putting him into the bridal bed, kissing the bride and drawing the curtains. The next morning he’s there again, finding them ‘both red in the face and well enough pleased this morning with their night’s lodging’.

The atmosphere begins to darken. He is angered that people ‘are afeared of London’ and shun its residents. When he is out of town he takes to telling people he is from Woolwich. By the end of July almost 2,000 are dying each week but Pepys, never downcast for long, takes time to admire ‘the young pretty ladies’ who have taken to wearing men’s clothes and galloping their horses through the streets at prodigious speed. By the end of August 4,000 a week are dying and they cannot all be buried at night as was customary. Pepys, out late, meets a corpse being carried in a narrow alley, ‘but I thank God I was not much disturbed by it’. The Lord Mayor orders all healthy people indoors by 9pm so that the sick can take the air.

By early September more than 7,000 are dying each week but Pepys thinks the true number is 10,000 as the poor are not recorded. Never mind, there’s always the unluckily named Mrs Bagwell and her daughter with whom, he records, he can do what he wishes. By December the deaths have begun to fall, fleas being inactive in cold weather. The Thames begins to freeze and Pepys hopes for an end to the sicknesse. The plague revives weakly in the spring and it is not until 20 November 1666, two months after the Great Fire, that the theatres re-open and a service of thanksgiving is held. Pepys thinks the service is premature, ‘there being some people dying still’.

The odds always favoured his survival. He once shared a bed with a stranger in a tavern. In the morning the stranger was flea-bitten but Pepys didn’t have a single one. For reasons unknown fleas avoided him. He was resilient with many distractions. He read Greek (and wrote it, which is how we know he was peeps not peppis) and knew that recovery from ancient plagues was swift. When Athenian losses in the Peloponnesian war were compounded by plague, they rebuilt their population by the scandalous expedient of having soldiers take two wives. When Socrates drank the hemlock, he said goodbye to Xanthippe and her adult son and to Myrto and her two little boys.

Pepys worked hard in the service of the Navy and, unlike others in powerful positions, then and now, he was incorruptible. (He bought oak from America not because he’d been bribed, but because it was cheaper than having the King’s own trees felled and carted to London.) He bore the plague with equanimity but was not invincible. He was still waking from terrifying nightmares six months after the 1666 fire. His diary is the earliest record of what would now be diagnosed as PTSD.

Can we learn lessons from this snippet of history? It’s doubtful. We can be amused at the parallels and the inexhaustible evidence of human ignorance and folly. Perhaps Pepys, in his reading of Greek, came across Xenophanes: ‘In human affairs there is no certain truth and all our knowledge is but a woven web of guesses.’ Not a bad lesson for these uncertain times.

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