A Festival of Plague

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the last great plague to arrive in London. By the year’s end nearly 100,000 people were dead most from infection while many ‘natural’ deaths were probably unreported plague victims. As the pestilence spread houses of victims were sealed for 40 days (biblical overtones?), with those surviving occupants entombed relying on neighbours charity in supplying food from a respectful distance.

[T]here were plenty of quack cures: a pint of garlic infused milk, doctors wore frightening masts infused with herbs to keep away the miasmas; tobacco was another method employed to ward off the aromas, even children were made to light up a pipe, students of Eton college were ordered to light up or be whipped; money was immersed in a bowl of vinegar during shop transactions in an attempt to stop the spread.

Lucky charms were the order of the day to ward off the contagion; a certain Dr. George Thomson wore a dead toad around his neck; plague water from powdered unicorn horn and frogs legs; tail feathers from live chickens administered to the victims buboes were thought to draw out the poison; or as an alternative the application of a recently killed pigeon.

By the time the pandemic had run its course 68,000 Londoners had officially died from the virus. Those rich enough having obtained health certificates mainly meant the rich like Dr. Alston, President of the College of Physicians could leave London while the poor remained to await their fate. It is estimated that 100,000 died in London, incredibly one-quarter of the city’s population perished.

To mark the anniversary the Guildhall Library has on display various documents recording this momentous event. Records of medical advice given, municipal accounts, recording the fatalities spreadsheets of the dead, Bills of Mortality. The exhibition is open Monday to Friday until 11th September – admission free.


If you have contracted a desire to learn more the excellent Tales of Plague tour guides are mounting ‘A Pestilential Festival’. From Friday 4th September until Sunday 6th September music, drama, walks, talks, exhibitions, workshops and one climatic ‘Pepys Party’ celebrating London’s unconquerable spirit.

Billed as the most infectious event in the capital for 350 years it will kick off from Tower Hill on Friday 4th September with a ‘dead cart procession’. Assembling from
9.30 am for a 10.00 am start at the Tower Hill. The procession of peasants, plague doctors, wenches and rogues will weave their way up to St. Botolph’s Church, Aldgate. For the full programme of events visit: www.talesofplague.co.uk/festival

Pictures: Nell Gwyn, Samuel Pepys and a Plague Doctor. Credit: ©Annie-Marie Sanderson.

What do you have to say for yourself?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s