Great Plague

The Great Plague (AD 1665-1666) was a massive outbreak of disease in Britain that killed 75,000 to 100,000 people, up to a fifth of London's population. The disease is generally believed to have been bubonic plague, an infection by the bacterium Yersinia pestis transmitted via a rat vector. Other symptom patterns of the bubonic plague such as septicemic plague and pneumonic plague were also present.

The 1665-66 epidemic was on a far smaller scale than the earlier "Black Death", a virulent outbreak of disease in Europe between 1347 and 1353, but was remembered afterwards as the "great" plague because it was one of the last widespread outbreaks in Europe.


1 Reference


This episode of plague in Britain is thought to have arrived with Dutch trading ships carrying bales of cotton from Amsterdam. The disease had occurred intermittently in Holland since 1654. The dock areas outside of London, where poor workers crowded into ill-kempt districts such as the parish of St. Giles-in-the Fields, were first struck by the plague. During the winter of 1664-65, there were reports of several deaths. However, the winter was very cold, seemingly controlling the contagion. But spring and summer months were unusually warm and sunny and the plague spread rapidly. Records were not kept on the deaths of the very poor, so the first recorded case was Margaret Porteous on April 12, 1665.

By July 1665, plague was in the city of London itself. King Charles II of England, his family and his court left the city for Oxford. However, the Lord Mayor of the city and the aldermen stayed at their posts. Businesses were closed when most wealthy merchants and professionals fled. Only a small number of clergymen, physicians and apothecaries chose to remain as the plague raged throughout the summer.

Several public health efforts were attempted. Physicians were hired by city officials and burial details were carefully organized. Authorities ordered fires to be kept burning night and day in hopes that the air would be cleansed. Substances giving off strong odors, such as pepper, hops or frankincense, were also burned to ward off the infection. London residents, including young children, were strongly urged to smoke tobacco.

Though concentrated in London, the outbreak affected other areas of the country. Perhaps the most famous example was the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. The plague arrived in a parcel of cloth sent from London. The villagers imposed a quarantine on themselves to stop the further spread of the disease. Spread of the plague was slowed in surrounding areas, but the cost to the village was the death of around 50% of its inhabitants.

Records state that deaths in London crept up to 1000 persons per week, then 2000 persons per week and, by September 1665, to 7000 persons per week. By late fall the death toll began to slow until, in February 1666, it was considered safe enough for the King and his entourage to return to the city. By this time, however, trade with the European continent had spread this outbreak of plague to France, where it died out the following winter.

Plague cases continued at a modest pace until September 1666. On September 2nd and 3rd, the Great Fire of London destroyed many of the most crowded housing and business areas of the city, causing 16 deaths. This event seems to have effectively stopped the plague outbreak, probably due to the destruction of London rats and their plague carrying fleas. After the fire, London was rebuilt on an urban plan originally drafted by architect Christopher Wren which included widened streets, reduced congestion and basic sewage drainage systems. Thatched roofs were also forbidden within the city.

Literary accounts

Accounts of the plague were given by Samuel Pepys in his famous diary and by Daniel Defoe in the fictional work A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722.


  • Bell, Walter George. "The Great Plague in London in 1665." London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1924.

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