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A plague on all their houses

 

 

JUNE 7TH 1665 was an unnaturally hot London day, the hottest that Samuel Pepys had experienced in his 32 years. Sapped by the “mighty heat”, this naval bureaucrat got home late and spent the next few hours pacing in his garden at Seething Lane. He had a lot on his mind. There had been no word of the English fleet that was fighting against the Dutch, and he was worried that his young wife Elizabeth had not yet returned from Gravesend (she had been delayed by an oncoming thunderstorm). But the deeper cause of his unease was something he had seen earlier in the day: two or three houses in Drury Lane with red crosses and “Lord have mercy upon us” painted on their door. Here was confirmation that the plague from Amsterdam, known to have reached England’s shores in early spring, had arrived in the capital. Suddenly aware of his body odour, Pepys stepped out to buy a roll of tobacco “to smell to and chaw”, hoping its medicinal properties would preserve him in the days ahead.

This summer marks 350 years since the Great Plague of London that left nearly 70,000 people in the city dead. At a time when the world is emerging from the lethal shadow of the Ebola outbreak, Pepys’s diary, with its rich detailing of an earlier plague, seems unnervingly fresh. From the moment he saw the red crosses on that boiling June day, through September when the death rate peaked at 7,000 a week, and until January 1666 when it began to wane, Pepys chronicled the plague’s progress through narrow alleys and grand mansions. He tells of the pest-houses and pest-coaches, and how the Lord Mayor forbade citizens from going out after dark so that the sick could “go abroad for ayre” and funeral corteges pass through without infecting the healthy. Wild stories swept the city of the ill maliciously breathing out of their windows to spread the contagion and of young gallants defying the mayor and attending plague burials for a lark. Soon, there were so many dead, they had to be buried by day. “Forty last night, the bell always going,” wrote Pepys in July.

One day he saw a group of Searchers emerging from the house of his drinking buddy Captain Cocke. Old women who examined corpses to ascertain the cause of death, Searchers carried long white sticks to keep the healthy at arm’s length. To Pepys’s relief it turned out that Cocke’s servant had not died of the plague. Another time, when his coachman was suddenly overcome with faintness and an attack of blindness, Pepys hastily took another coach, but “with a sad heart for the poor man”. Though largely unflappable, Pepys was profoundly disturbed by the sight of a body lying in the open at Greenwich. The disease, he wrote, had made people “cruel, as doggs”.

London wore a ghostly, shut-up look. Thousands, including the newly restored King Charles II and his court, had fled to the suburbs and other towns; the economy was in ruins. “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!” Those who died included Pepys’s physician, his schoolfellow, his aunt, and the entire family of “poor Will, that use to sell us ale at Westminster Hall-door”. Although he moved his wife to Woolwich, and himself and his clerks to Greenwich, the diarist continued to visit the city.

He also continued to live. Surrounded though he was by corpses that “stunk mightily”, Pepys retained his delight in drawing “a musique scale”, smiling over a “nest of puppies”, one of which had been promised to his wife, searching for an unshuttered tavern, and reading a new play, the playhouses being closed. He made a new will, but found himself wondering if he would ever get a chance to wear his new periwig—surely wigs would soon be unfashionable, for who would buy hair that might have come from a plague corpse? He faithfully observed the monthly day of fasting declared by the king during the pestilence, but made up on the other days, once consuming two barrels of oysters, despite knowing they came from disease-ravaged Colchester. With Elizabeth safely away, the libidinous Pepys merrily courted his “Valentine”, Mrs Bagwell, wife of a ship’s master-carpenter. After one pleasurable late-night encounter, he learned that her servant had died of plague in that very house and that Mrs Bagwell had only just emerged from the compulsory 40-day quarantine. Fearful their love nest had not been adequately disinfected with whitewash, he distracted himself with a pint of sack, which he shared with the waterman who rowed him home.

In January 1666, the Pepyses returned to Seething Lane. They celebrated by re-upholstering their bedchamber with counterfeit damask. The end of the plague brought a new affliction: visiting relatives, notably “a silly, forward, ugly” aunt quivering with sensational plague stories. Pepys fled to his office. Through the epidemic, oysters and flirtations, he never once abandoned his work as Clerk of the Acts of the Navy. For this he was highly commended and promoted to Surveyor–General of the Victualling Office. By the end of the plague year, he had trebled his income and burnished his reputation. A just reward for a resourceful optimist and incomparable diarist who began almost every daily entry with the cheerful word, “Up.”

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