The year a quarter of London’s population died

The year of our Lord, 1665, and God’s wrath smote the City of London laying waste to a quarter of its population for their sinful deeds.


In this, the 350th anniversary of the last of the great plagues to strike England, an exhibition has opened in the Guildhall library that looks at how the effects of the plague were recorded by the afflicted.

The documents and books on display are a mix of medical advice to those alive, and record keeping of the dead. It is a trait of municipal minds that record keeping has to be maintained, even in the midst of calamitous events.

As such, spreadsheets of the dead are displayed, with decorative borders of corruption. Mortality reduced to accountancy.

Elsewhere, doctors and quacks proclaimed various treatments for the living to stave off the pestilence. A pint of garlic infused milk anyone?


Curiously, there was science at work, with attempts to uncover the method of the plague spreading. Bad airs being the most favoured of explanations and admonitions to dispelling the miasmas with more fragrant aromas.

However, while science strove to fight the plague, they were not trying to understand the cause of the plague, for that was obvious — God’s wrath was at work. Science simply sought to mitigate God.


By the end of the year, nearly 100,000 people were dead, although as a death from plague meant a house being sealed for 40 days and nights, it’s thought that many “natural” deaths were probably plague deaths misreported upon payment of a bribe.


No bribe is needed to visit the exhibition though, which is freely open to all until 11th Sept. Mon-Fri, and occasional Saturdays.


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