“In the evening home to supper; and there, to my great trouble, hear that the plague is come into the City; but where should it begin but in my good friend and neighbours’, Dr. Burnett, in Fanchurch Street: which in both points trouble me mightily.” — Samuel Pepys
When the plague does appear in London, it is again recorded by Pepys as rumor, uncertain and ominous. On April 30th, 1665, he notes that there are “great fears of the sickness here in the city, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up.” But by the start of summer, the plague unequivocally materializes: “The towne grows very sickly” he writes on June 15th, “and people to be afeard of it; there dying this last week of plague 112, from 43 the week before.”
The previous night Pepys has spent lying awake, resolving to put his estate in order “in case it should please God to call me away.” Plague houses—marked red and with the words “Lord Have Mercy Upon Us” scrawled across their doors—noticeably increase; Churches and businesses close up; Pepys witnesses “all the towne almost going out of towne”, the wealthy escaping the city for their country retreats; and by July 18th, the city is running out of space in which to bury its dead. But still, daily life persists, Pepys continues to tend to his affairs (both romantic and business), travelling to work each morning while taking the added precaution to finish before sundown, so as not to mistakenly run into the sickness, “it is much to be feared how a man can escape having a share with others in it” he writes, on July 3rd with heightened anxiety. By August 11th, a curfew had been called. “The people die so” Pepys writes, “that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by day-light, the nights not sufficient to do it in. And my Lord Mayor commands people to be within at nine at night all, as they say, that the sick may have liberty to go abroad for ayre.”
Specious treatments (“remedies against it; some one thing, some another”), stories of the sick coughing in the faces of the well (a recent report in Sydney similarly told of a man wanted by police for intentionally coughing in the face of a grocery store clerk), and a swelling fear and anxiety amongst the population in general, sit beside the diurnal scenes of work and home life. The plague, in one way or another, infects every entry of Pepys’ diary during this time. He sleeps poorly because of it, worrying at one point that with “the town growing so unhealthy… a man cannot depend upon living two days to an end”; breaks his lengthy sobriety as a means to self-medicate after the death of his doctor; rushes forward the wedding of his patron’s daughter upon hearing that the chaplain has been taken by plague; and begins religiously to check The Bill, the weekly mortality statistics of London, which cost about a penny and were published in large print runs. At the height of the outbreak in August, Pepys does not leave his house for days on end. When he does, his entry is chilling in its description of London’s streets: “But Lord! How everybody’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.”
For Part I of Thomas Moody’s report, click here.