Records state that plague deaths in London and the suburbs crept up over the summer from 2,000 people per week to over 7,000 per week in September. These figures are likely to be a considerable underestimate. Many of the sextons and parish clerks who kept the records themselves died.1
Statistics for the 17th century are imprecise but an accepted population figure for London in 1665 is about 500,000. One difficulty is the definition of ‘London’ as there were settlements immediately outside the boundary. These are often included in the total figure. Regardless of this imprecision death totals were about 100,0002 or about 20% of the population. The 2020-21 Covid-19 pandemic horrified Britain but compared to the Great Plague it wasn’t that severe. Its impact was mitigated by a sophisticated scientific and economic response.3 During the pandemic there’s been about 16,000 Covid deaths in London or about 0.17% of the population. Extrapolating from the 1665 experience meant about 1,800,000 deaths, in London alone, if interventions had been ineffective.4
Losing a loved one is distressing and it was no less so in 1665. Ceremonies are used to comfort the bereaved. The Great Plague turned tragedy into a public health hazard. Instead of ceremonies, bodies had to be disposed of as quickly and efficiently as possible. The authorities in London used mass graves commonly called Plague Pits.5 The only comfort, for the bereaved, was that the pits were in consecrated ground and so the opportunity to go to Heaven wasn’t denied them.
Recategorising the dead as health hazards meant a loss of dignity. As can be seen from the picture above, bodies were collected like household waste. Carts were filled and taken to plague pits and unceremoniously emptied. This added to the psychological horror. You only have to consider putting a loved one on the street for collection for disposal in a mass grave to understand the scarring of Londoners in 1665. No good byes; no ceremony; no service. Family “…survivors were even banned by the Plague Orders from joining a funeral or a funeral procession.”6
Respiratory pandemics aren’t unusual and can be planned for. Strategies to mitigate their impact are straight forward but require decisive political leadership. The chaos in 2020 wasn’t caused by a lack of understanding but a failure of leadership. Using devastating fires as a metaphor we know that they rarely happen. Nonetheless it’s prudent to buy household insurance as the cost of a total rebuild plus contents is unaffordable. The Covid ‘Fire’ happened in 2020. The cost for Britain is multiples of billions of pounds. What’s worse is the unquantifiable pain and suffering in terms of death and long term ill-health for millions of British people. Health planning is a form of insurance protecting society from known harm. 17th Londoners suffered catastrophic losses through no fault of their own. This isn’t the case for 21st century London.
Addendum: Bubonic Plague and Covid-19
The Great Plague was the last of 300 years of bubonic plague which terrorised Britain. Bubonic plague is spread by fleas. Covid-19 is spread person-to-person for which social measures and vaccines can mitigate its horrors. For a comprehensive list of epidemics see Epidemics_in_Britain (mongenes.org.uk)
3 London Population 2021 (Demographics, Maps, Graphs) (worldpopulationreview.com) The is source gives a population size for London in 2021 of 9.4 million
5 In 2020 New York City had mass graves dug for Covid deaths as normal procedures were swamped. Coronavirus: New York ramps up mass burials amid outbreak – BBC News