The illustration tells the story of a young girl’s arrival in London at the outbreak of the Great Plague in 1665. A church can be seen in the distance. The shops along the street can be identified by their signs. A confectioner's in the foreground has the image of a sugared plum in front of it.
A bright comet came over London during the winter of 1664/1665, and people took it as a bad sign. What followed was a year long plague that took a terrible death toll: the worst epidemic in the history of the city. Samuel Pepys
chronicled the evolution of the disaster in his diary
. There are firstly the rumors about the plague in Amsterdam and the danger of coming to London through Dutch ships. It is then much nearer, just over the Chanel, at Calais. There is the discussion about the comet. And then it's there, in the whole city, operating without mercy. The end of the year brings the hope that the freezing weather will eliminate the calamity.
Monday 19 October 1663
... I took coach, and to the Coffee-house
where much talk about the Turk
’s proceedings, and that the plague is got to Amsterdam
, brought by a ship from Argier
; and it is also carried to Hambrough. The Duke
says the King
purposes to forbid any of their ships coming into the river ...
Thursday 16 June 1664
... The talk upon the ‘Change
is, that De Ruyter
is dead, with fifty men of his own ship, of the plague, at Cales
Wednesday 22 June 1664
... great talke of the Dutch preparing of sixty sayle of ships. The plague grows mightily among them, both at sea and land ...
Monday 25 July 1664
... I to the Coffee-house
, but no newes, only the plague is very hot still, and encreases among the Dutch ...
Wednesday 1 March 1664/65
... I to Gresham College
, where Mr. Hooke
read a second very curious lecture about the late Comett; among other things proving very probably that this is the very same Comett that appeared before in the year 1618, and that in such a time probably it will appear again ...
Sunday 30 April 1665
... Great fears of the sickenesse
here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve as all!
Wednesday 24 May 1665
... Thence to the Coffee-house
, where I have not been a great while, where all the newes is of the Dutch being gone out, and of the plague
growing upon us in this towne; and of remedies against it: some saying one thing, some another ...
Wednesday 7 June 1665
This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane
see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell to and chaw, which took away the apprehension.
Saturday 10 June 1665
... the plague
is come into the City
(though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City); but where should it begin but in my good friend and neighbour’s, Dr. Burnett
, in Fanchurch Street
: which in both points troubles me mightily. To the office to finish my letters and then home to bed, being troubled at the sicknesse, and my head filled also with other business enough, and particularly how to put my things and estate in order, in case it should please God to call me away, which God dispose of to his glory!
Thursday 15 June 1665
... The towne grows very sickly, and people to be afeard of it; there dying this last week of the plague
112, from 43 the week before, whereof but [one] in Fanchurch- streete
, and one in Broad-streete
, by the Treasurer’s office
Thursday 22 June 1665
Up pretty betimes, and in great pain whether to send my mother
into the country to-day or no, I hearing, by my people, that she, poor wretch, hath a mind to stay a little longer, and I cannot blame her, considering what a life she will through her own folly lead when she comes home again, unlike the pleasure and liberty she hath had here. At last I resolved to put it to her, and she agreed to go, so I would not oppose it, because of the sicknesse
in the towne ...
Friday 30 June 1665
... Myself and family in good health, consisting of myself and wife, Mercer, her woman, Mary
, and Susan
our maids, and Tom
my boy. In a sickly time of the plague
growing on ... Consideration of removing my wife to Woolwich
Wednesday 5 July 1665
Up, and advised about sending of my wife
’s bedding and things to Woolwich
, in order to her removal thither ... I by water to Woolwich, where I found my wife come, and her two mayds, and very prettily accommodated they will be; and I left them going to supper, grieved in my heart to part with my wife, being worse by much without her, though some trouble there is in having the care of a family at home in this plague
time, and so took leave, and I in one boat and W. Hewer
in another home very late, first against tide, we having walked in the dark to Greenwich
. Late home and to bed, very lonely.
Monday 17 July 1665
So anon I took leave, and for London. But, Lord! to see, among other
things, how all these great people here are afeard of London, being
doubtfull of anything that comes from thence, or that hath lately been
Saturday 22 July 1665
... Only, while I was there, a poor woman come to scold with the master of the house that a kinswoman, I think, of hers, that was newly dead of the plague, might be buried in the church- yard; for, for her part, she should not be buried in the commons, as they said she should ... I met this noon with Dr. Burnett
, who told me, and I find in the newsbook this week that he posted upon the ‘Change
, that whoever did spread the report that, instead of the plague
, his servant was by him killed, it was forgery, and shewed me the acknowledgment of the master of the pest- house, that his servant died of a bubo on his right groine, and two spots on his right thigh, which is the plague ...
Monday 31 July 1665
the vintner of the Miter
, and his son, are dead this morning there, of the plague
... which grows mightily upon us, the last week being about 1700 or 1800 of the plague ...
This evening with Mr. Brisband
, speaking of enchantments and spells; I telling him some of my charms; he told me this of his owne knowledge, at Bourdeaux
, in France. The words these: Voyci un Corps mort, Royde come un Baston, Froid comme Marbre, Leger come un esprit, Levons to au nom de Jesus Christ
Tuesday 15 August 1665
... It was dark before I could get home, and so land at Church-yard stairs
, where, to my great trouble, I met a dead corps of the plague, in the narrow ally just bringing down a little pair of stairs ...
Wednesday 16 August 1665
... Thence to the Exchange
, where I have not been a great while. But, Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the ‘Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up ...
Wednesday 30 August 1665
Up betimes and to my business of settling my house and papers, and then abroad and met with Hadley
, our clerke, who, upon my asking how the plague
goes, he told me it encreases much, and much in our parish; for, says he, there died nine this week, though I have returned but six: which is a very ill practice, and makes me think it is so in other places; and therefore the plague much greater than people take it to be. Thence, as I intended, to Sir R. Viner
’s, and there found not Mr. Lewes
ready for me, so I went forth and walked towards Moorefields
to see (God forbid my presumption!) whether I could see any dead corps going to the grave; but, as God would have it, did not. But, Lord! how every body’s looks, and discourse in the street is of death, and nothing else, and few people going up and down, that the towne is like a place distressed and forsaken ...
Thursday 31 August 1665
... Thus this month ends with great sadness upon the publick, through the greatness of the plague every where through the kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its encrease. In the City
died this week 7,496 and of them 6,102 of the plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead, this week is near 10,000; partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of, through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers
and others that will not have any bell ring for them ... As to myself I am very well, only in fear of the plague, and as much of an ague by being forced to go early and late to Woolwich
, and my family to lie there continually ...
Sunday 3 September 1665
(Lord’s day). Up; and put on my coloured silk suit very fine, and my new periwigg
, bought a good while since, but durst not wear, because the plague
was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done, as to periwiggs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off of the heads of people dead of the plague ...
Thursday 14 September 1665
... Then, on the other side, my finding that though the Bill in general is abated, yet the City
within the walls is encreased, and likely to continue so, and is close to our house there. My meeting dead corpses of the plague, carried to be buried close to me at noon-day through the City in Fanchurch-street
. To see a person sick of the sores, carried close by me by Gracechurch
in a hackney-coach
. My finding the Angell
tavern, at the lower end of Tower- hill
, shut up, and more than that, the alehouse at the Tower-stairs
, and more than that, the person was then dying of the plague when I was last there, a little while ago, at night, to write a short letter there, and I overheard the mistresse of the house sadly saying to her husband somebody was very ill, but did not think it was of the plague. To hear that poor Payne
, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself. To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams
, to know how they did there, is dead of the plague; and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water (and I believe he did get his infection that day at Brainford
), and is now dead of the plague. To hear that Captain Lambert
are killed in the taking these ships; and that Mr. Sidney Montague
is sick of a desperate fever at my Lady Carteret
’s, at Scott’s-hall
. To hear that Mr. Lewes
hath another daughter sick. And, lastly, that both my servants, W. Hewer
and Tom Edwards
, have lost their fathers, both in St. Sepulchre
’s parish, of the plague this week, do put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason. But I put off the thoughts of sadness as much as I can, and the rather to keep my wife in good heart and family also ...
Thursday 26 October 1665
... The ‘Change pretty full, and the town begins to be lively again, though the streets very empty, and most shops shut ...
Wednesday 22 November 1665
... I heard this day that Mr. Harrington
is not dead of the plague
, as we believed, at which I was very glad, but most of all, to hear that the plague is come very low; that is, the whole under 1,000, and the plague 600 and odd: and great hopes of a further decrease, because of this day’s being a very exceeding hard frost, and continues freezing ...