On Friday, from my study in Suffolk, with the apple blossom in full bloom outside, I took a virtual pilgrimage through Pepys’ London, with author Jacky Colliss Harvey and Barbara Schwepcke, founder of Haus Publishing. Through the glass of our screens, Jacky gave us a tour of some of the 17th century tea and coffee houses around Fleet Street and the Strand frequented by Pepys while Barbara and I ran to keep up with her comprehensive knowledge of her subject, darting into courtyards, and flattening ourselves against the imagined walls of alleys as Pepys’ many mistresses passed by.
During the course of this inspiring helter skelter, Jacky reminded us that the bubonic plague stalked London at this time. From spring 1665 to autumn 1666, tens of thousands died from the plague, and while other parts of the country also suffered, London lost around 15% of its population. Then, as now, it was the poor who were most affected by the disease. Having no other options they were forced to remain in the city while those with means fled to the countryside. In July of 1665, King Charles II (he of the spaniels) and his courtiers left the city for Hampton Court; Parliament was prorogued and then moved to Oxford, as did the courts. Pepys sent his parents to Huntingdon and his wife Elizabeth out to Greenwich, far from the grime of the capital, where rats and their fleas spread the disease through jumbled streets and overcrowded dwellings. Then as now, fleeing from danger was a rational action, and like displaced people the world over, these urban refugees were not always welcomed in the places they ran to.
As people either fled or died, the usual hub-bub of the Great Wen was stilled. Pepys’ diary entry for October 16th 1665 reads “But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that.” The epidemic was to rumble on for many more months until on September 2nd 1666, The Great Fire of London marked the end of this particular outbreak.
The prevailing fire-fighting technique of the time was to create fire breaks by demolishing buildings in its path, but in this instance, the aptly named Sir Thomas Bloodworth, Lord Mayor of London, dithered indecisively and in a matter of hours, thousands lost their livelihoods and homes as the flames leaped across from one timber-framed building to another. The fire had started in a bakery in Pudding Lane but soon rumours abounded that our enemies were to blame; the French or Dutch perhaps? Fewer than a dozen deaths were recorded, but maybe this too was simply a convenient version of events. On learning about the Great Fire at school, my granddaughter, aged six, certainly found it preposterous that a fire of such magnitude could claim so few souls.
After the fire, London quickly recovered, thanks in large part to the charitable donations garnered from parishes across the land. Jacob Field’s research on this topic suggests that the usual antipathy of the regions towards the capital was set aside in the interests of a common humanity or, perhaps in recognition that this was after all the beating heart of England and the sooner its workforce might recover from the crisis, the better for all concerned. One of the great shifts which COVID has brought about is the return to a more local, community focused way of life. And for many, this is indeed a great joy. But let us not forget that in the still densely packed metropolis, some of Britain’s poorest citizens have been the most hard hit by the virus and its consequences. And as the lockdown comes to an end, they will need help to get back on their feet and back to work in those few square miles that form the engine of Britain’s industry.