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Michigan State University

Defoe and the Plague in London 1664-1665: Consequences

Guide accompanies a small book exhibit in the Lobby of the Main Library.


Consequences of the Plague in London, 1664-1665

  • The Black Death and its periodic recurrences to 1722, called the Second Plague Pandemic, have generated more historical writing and speculation than many other historical events. This was the last episode of bubonic plague in England.
  • This particular episode of plague derives much of its significance from its subsequent position in literary culture.  Two classics of English literature contributed to its reputation, Defoe’s Journal… and Pepy’s Diary….
  • Trade and commerce, both national and international, experienced great disruption.  English ships could not enter ports of other countries.  Other countries were not willing to ship goods to England.  Some trade through other  English ports continued.
  • All shops and businesses in London closed in the summer of 1665.
  • The Government modified The Privy Council Orders of 1578. New Orders came out in 1666.  These placed more emphasis on isolating the sick in pesthouses to prevent disease spread.  London had only five pesthouses in 1665.
  • About one quarter of London’s population died, 75-100,000 of 400,000 people.  Over 7,000 per week died in September, 1665.  When the cemeteries were full, they buried bodies in mass graves.
  • Journal of the Plague Year says there was financial poor relief that parishes could tap into. Parishes used these funds to pay women to nurse the sick and men to watch over “shut up” homes to ensure that no residents came out, to bring food, and to carry away and bury the dead bodies. The funds came both from the Government and from people who could afford to be philanthropic.  But many people did not know how to tap into these resources.  Left over funds were then used to help finance rebuilding London after The Great Fire, which was in September, 1666.
  • Where did the Government’s aid funds come from? The King was the universal inheritor of titles to land and property that fell abandoned at death of their owners.  Charles II granted these resources to the Lord Mayor of London and its Court of  Aldermen to be sold and the resulting funds to be used by the Church of England's parishes to aid the poor in their distress.
  • What caused the plague to stop?  Colder weather in November, 1665.  It ceased by altogether  in February, 1666. 
Michigan State University