ID: PH01_PLG / Elaine Barker

TitleThe Great Plague of Colchester and London
AbstractImagine an epidemic so virulent that shops, theatres and pubs closed, trade and travel ceased, families isolated if a family member was ill and food was delivered to the door by the community. Imagine special arrangements being made to bury the dead with no funerals allowed and the wealthy fleeing to a second home or relatives in the country, causing panic in the community where they pitched up. Imagine frontline workers isolating themselves from their families and incoming travellers from abroad quarantined.

In the light of Covid 19 in 2020 not so difficult to imagine but in this instance it was 355 years ago, during the Great Plague. Two of the most badly hit areas were London and Colchester. Although called The Great Plague of London in fact, proportionally, Colchester had more deaths.

It was believed then that the plague was an air-borne 'poison', a contagion that was generated by poisonous fumes rising from marshes, cess pits, open sewers and animal remains, including those resulting from the butcher's trade.

Symptoms included fever, headache, vomiting, swollen lymph nodes known as buboes and black patches on sufferers' skin. Infected people had a 30% chance of dying within two weeks and poor people living in crowded unsanitary homes with a poor diet were more susceptible.

The plague was endemic in seventeenth century London and periodically there were massive outbreaks and there had been three such outbreaks between 1603 and 1636. In Colchester, Morant recorded significant outbreaks in 1579, 1604 and 1631. [The History and Antiquities of the most ancient Town and Borough of Colchester 1748]

In that era there was limited medical knowledge and many of the doctors fled the areas of 'pestilence' or themselves died.

Traditional methods of treatment were tried, bleeding, sweating, purging and various herbal remedies. Advice given by the College of Physicians involved maintaining a good diet, airing rooms, fumigating by burning sulphur and preventive medicines.

With the epidemic came numerous quack doctors and powders and potions said to cure the plague. There were many recipes for prevention and cure; marigold flowers eaten as a salad with vinegar was a common one for preventing the disease. Shopkeepers would ask customers to drop their coins into a bowl of vinegar or water.

An old medical book gave a preventive herbal recipe

Infuse Rue, Sage, Mint, Rosemary, wormwood, of each a Handful, in two quarts of the sharpest Vinegar over warm Embers for eight Days. Then strain it through a Flannel and add half an Ounce of Camphire, dissolved in three Ounces of Rectified Spirits of Wine. With this wash the Loins, Face and Mouth and snuff a little up the Nose when you go abroad. Smell to a Spunge dipt therein when you approach infected Persons or Places [The Plague in Colchester G W Martin Essex Countryside P. 56 Winter 1956/57]

The Essex Records Office holds a recipe book started in 1665 by Abigail Abdy who was born at Felix Hall, Kelvedon. Not surprisingly, given the date the book was started there are recipes to make the plague water and The Kings majesties excellent receipt for the plague. [D/DU 161/623]

It was apparently noted that few tobacconists had been afflicted so people took to chewing tobacco - and children were encouraged to smoke!

I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw - which took away the apprehension [7th June 1665 The Diary of Samuel Pepys]

The infection is believed to have come from the fleas on Black Rats, often referred to as 'Ships' Rats'. The Black Rat is a species that is now not common in this country, but still found in some dockyard areas. The bacterium called Yersinia Pestis was carried by these rats and, in turn, their fleas. When its host died, the flea would hop onto the nearest living thing and transfer the bacterium by its bite. In the overcrowded homes and streets of towns and cities like Colchester and London this meant people became their hosts.

In recent times, doubt has been cast on the role of the rat fleas in the spread of the plague. So rapid was the spread, it is now thought there was also human to human transmission, either air-borne or by human lice and fleas.

Whether we can blame rats or human transmission the towns and cities of the seventeenth century were dirty, overcrowded, rat-infested and smelled bad. They had crude narrow streets with no pavements and very little drainage, there were open sewers, pot holes full of water and heaps of ashes. Rubbish was thrown out into the street where it lay rotting.

We owe a lot of our knowledge about the effects of the plague on London and Colchester to diaries kept by Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and a lesser known diarist of Earls Colne, The Rev Josselin.

Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year also wrote an account. This is believed to be from an eye witness, his uncle, Henry Foe, who was a saddler living in Whitechapel during the plague. Regarded as a fiction (Defoe was a young child at the time of the plague) it is, however, believed many details are accurate.

Plague rules had been set out by the Privy Council in 1579. These also included a national tax, collected through local rates, to finance the care of the sick in pest houses. Today we would call pest houses 'isolation hospitals', and it had been recognised that quarantining infected individuals halted the spread but the numbers involved in 1665 and 1666 were clearly too great to supply places for those who needed them.

In Colchester there were two pest houses, at St Mary's and Mile End. A local historian researching the Mile End area of Colchester tells me.

In 1666 a pest house was built in Mile End off the folly between Clay Lane and Mill Road. It was a one storey timber structure covered in tarpaulin, built by John Smith for £25.  The tarpaulin cost another 10s 9d. [no source provided]

If infected you were locked in your home and a big red cross marked the house with the prayer Lord Have Mercy On Us. There was little chance to isolate in a separate room within a home, many families lived in one room and the building was shared with other families. Needless to say, it was the poor who suffered most. Following lockdown, the red cross was kept on the door for 40 days, then a white cross for another 20 days following which the house be well fumed, Washed and Whited all over within with Lime and for at least three months after, no clothes, household stuff or furniture was to be removed.

A round-the-clock watchman was placed outside the door to prevent anyone leaving or entering and he passed on food that was delivered, often, by the parish. If you were already on parish relief this was paid for but if not you had to pay or sell belongings to cover the cost.

The plague was also rife in the rest of Europe, most particularly Holland, and, at Colchester's Hythe and in London's docks, restrictions were placed on ships coming from known areas of plague. These vessels were placed in quarantine for 30 days, then 40 days as the epidemic worsened. As early as November 1663, ships coming into English ports from Amsterdam and Hamburg were being subject to quarantine.

In London 'pest-ships' were also used to isolate and nurse infected sailors. With the country at war, protection of sailors was of paramount importance to the war effort.

Towards the end of November 1664, news came that the infection had been brought to Great Yarmouth by a ship from Rotterdam and at around the same time the first deaths were recorded in London.

Colchester Hythe, at that time, was a major port and as well as being engaged in coastal trade in this country, exported and imported goods overseas. The town enjoyed a substantial trade with Rotterdam where the plague had been rife. Nicholas Corsellis, a wealthy merchant, who in fact fled his home at Wivenhoe Hall in September 1665, reported suspending his trade with Ostend.

In London, in March 1665, the first houses where the infection had been reported were shut up.

30th 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 us all [The Diary of Samuel Pepys]

It is believed the plague then spread out from London as people fled the capital for the country. Doctors, lawyers, merchants, the royal family, MPs and those in the legal profession all fled the capital.

Defoe wrote

Nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children, coaches filled with people of the better sort and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away. [Journal of the Plague Year]

At Earls Colne, the Reverend Josselin wrote on 9th July 1665

God good in our preservac[i]on, the plague feares the Londoners, they flie before it and the country feares all trade with London

The week before he noted that his London-based son had leave to continue in the country

On 28th July 1665 he wrote in his diary: persons fall down in London streets

It was decreed that anyone moving around the country had to have a certificate of health signed by an official to declare they were free of the plague or had come from an area free from it. No stranger was allowed to enter a town without a certificate.

We had many more quays along the east coast than exist today and can only presume any boats from elsewhere were treated with great suspicion as would any strangers entering the villages.

A Wivenhoe, grocer, John Branch, had a warrant empowering him to keep off from landing or being set on shore any people from London coming in at the quay without a certificate. On one occasion he approached a boat lying at the Quay and required the passengers not to come on shore until they had shown some credible certificate that they were free from infection. They were not compliant and instead of staying on board or showing any such certificate, pressed by violence to come on shore.

John Branch tried to obtain assistance from two men on the quayside but they, Thomas Collin and Thomas Clarke, were clearly involved in what was probably a lucrative 'trade' and refused to assist. With a torrent of bad language aimed at Branch, Thomas Clarke started to help the passengers ashore while Collin took his boat and therein fetched divers of the passengers on shore from out of the said 'pacquet bote'. The men clearly appeared in court at Michaelmas! (Michaelmas is the end of September). [ERO Court Sessions Michaelmas 1665]

As the weather warmed over the summer of 1665, the plague spread relentlessly and while the plague was devastating London, it arrived in Colchester in August. Josselin first noted it in his diary on 13th August: Lord be not angry with our prayers; and now Colchester is infected.

Only two weeks later it is clear from Josselin, who revealed his anxiety at the possibility of plague reaching his parish, that many were leaving Colchester:

Colchester seeke into the country for dwellings

and on 27th August: ... much endangered by Colchester. A lad of our parish coming thence died in White Colne, feared of the infection, another among us of his company

In the meantime Pepys commented on the situation in London

16th August 1665 Lord how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people..two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up

28th August 1665 how few people I see, and those walking like people that had taken leave of the world

In London, on September 7th 1665, John Evelyn noted

Came home, there perishing now neere ten thousand poore Creatures weekely: however I went all along the Citty and suburbs from Kent streete to St James's, a dismal passage and dangerous, to see so many Cofines exposed in the streetes and the streete thin of people, the shops shut up, and all in mournfull silence, as not knowing whose turne might be next ...

In Colchester at that time, the majority of the population still lived within the Roman Walls and was estimated to be around 10,000. Being a military town and at war with Holland, Colchester also had over 2,000 Dutch Prisoners of War and their guards and injured English seamen.

While London deaths were mounting, in Colchester it has been estimated

... that no other provincial town faced such a virulent outbreak in proportion to its size I.G.Doolittle The Plague in Colchester Essex Archaeological Society 1972, 4: 134 - 145

Daniel Defoe in his Tour Through The Eastern Counties, published in 1724, noted

the town was severely visited, indeed even more in proportion than any of its neighbours, or than the City of London.

By this time, a complete panic had spread throughout the whole county of Essex and within a couple of months the situation looked desperate.

Colchester Justices of the Peace had, many years before, in 1578, directed the town Bailiffs to organise selection of suitable persons to ascertain causes of death during the times of epidemics.

Searchers, as they were called, were to go round with a medical person, an 'examiner' to ascertain cause of death.

By the time of the outbreak in 1665, it seems that the searchers were trusted to ascertain the cause of death.

The deputy mayor and the justices called a meeting to discuss the seriousness of the situation and they ordered that the physician (Mr Raer) should minister to the sick and that he should be paid £1 per week. They also ordered that a Mr Hendrik, [a 'Dutch Chirurgeon'] should do the same for the Dutch population, of which there were large numbers employed in the cloth trade at that time. Searchers and bearers were also appointed.

The oaths sworn by the searchers and bearers have been handed down to us...The searchers swore that they would view each body, and report to the constables, without exaggeration, their opinion of the cause of death. The bearers appointed to bury the dead were also to be informed. They were to live together - apart from their families and friends - and to keep away from any other person.

In the Colchester Oath Book this oath applied also to the bearers, but it appears that most of their work was done at night because 'unless it be otherwise ordered by the Mayor of this Towne' they should be 'carrying them to buriall alwaies in the nightyme' The Plague in Colchester G W Martin Essex Countryside P. 56 Winter 1956/57

The searchers were often the poorest people in the parish, on parish poor relief, likewise the bearers who were to bury the bodies. Both searchers and bearers carried white wands to warn people to stay away from them; in London Pepys reported seeing the searchers with their rods in their hands

In the Colchester Oath book we find that James Barton and John Cooke undertook to act as Bearers for Burials, the entry is dated 16th August 1665.

James Barton and John Cooke} Sworne who are to have for their paines ten sh a weeke apeece, and 2 sh for everyone to be buried, takeinge the twoe shillings out of the estate of the deceased; if there be no wherewithall, the parish to beare it

At a later meeting the salary was reduced - was this due to the sheer volume of deaths and the cost to the town?

At the meeting of the deputy mayor and the justices, the bearers' salary was readjusted and fixed at 6s 8d a week. The Plague in Colchester G W Martin Essex Countryside P. 56 Winter 1956/57

A Colchester plague pit has possibly been identified just off the Mersea Road, outside of the town walls and marked on early maps as The Mount. On the 25" to the mile OS Map of 1875 there is a reference to Human Remains Found AD 1867 although this has never been verified. Was this where James Barton and John Cooke buried the Colchester victims?

A map from 1897 showing The Mount in the bottom right hand corner
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

It is also believed, that in 1665, areas of High Woods were used as mass graves for plague victims.

At dead of night that gruesome tumbril the 'death-cart' torch-lit waiting for the living to bring out their dead ... or a burial service by the dim light of lanterns was held in the field When the Fourth Horseman rode in Essex E A Humphrey Fenn

On 2nd August 1665, The Rev Josselin mentions the first public monthly fast called for distressed London

John Evelyn also noted: August 2 Was the Solemn Fast through England to deprecate Gods displeasure against the Land by Pestilence and War The Diary of John Evelyn

These fasts were usually proclaimed by the church or civil authority and had been established as a part of English life since medieval times. Everyone between 16 and 60 was expected to spend the whole day fasting and to attend church listening to sermons of exhortation and meditating on their sin. These days were usually called for in response to some disaster, such as drought, flood, fire, military defeat or - as in this case - plague. Fasts were also held before undertaking a great endeavour.

Forty years earlier, in July 1625, Charles I had established a regular fast day every Wednesday to ward off the plague. The plague was seen as God's punishment for our sins and the emphasis was on moral self-examination and seeking to regain God's favour.

In 1665, in Essex, an order was issued that, from 12th July and on each successive Wednesday, people were to fast and make a collection to relieve the plague victims of London. Nationally, The Rules and Orders of 1666 stipulated a dedicated fast day once a month.

Josselin gives weekly updates on deaths in both London and Colchester and reports on 10th September 1665: they ordered continual fires in London for three days and nights at every door. This, according to the proclamation from the king, was to correct the air

September 16: Colchester increaseth in illness being spread over the whole town.

October 4: Wee [Earl's Colne] remembred poore Colchester in our collection neare 30s and sent them formerly £4

On October 15 Josselin reports that it is costing Colchester £500 a month to deal with the epidemic:

wherupon the country within 5 miles round was charged towards theire relief

Charitable donations at church no longer generating enough income, the area charged was to include Peldon, the Wigboroughs and eight other parishes of Winstree Hundred.

In London, Pepys comments

16th October 1665 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

On the Reverend Josselin's birthday on 26th January 1666 he muses that it is

The greatest plague in England since that in Edward the thirds time, and yett it continues, as very feirce in many places of England this January 26.

With the cold weather over the winter of 1665/6, the plague was abating. Just as the extremely hot weather of the summers of 1665 and 1666 increased the incidence of the plague so the cold winter suppressed it. It must have been deemed safe enough for Josselin's son, Thomas, to go back to London having been with us since beginning of June

In February, the King and his Court returned to London from Oxford where they had fled. The absence of the country's rulers had been deplored by Pepys in January 1666

Pray God continue the plague's decrease - for that keeps the Court away from the place of business, and so all goes to wrack as to public matters, they at this distance not thinking of it

But in Colchester the plague was still rife and on 8th April 1666 Josselin reports: it's at Dedham and several villages, Lord in mercy remove thy hand.

The Rules and Orders published in May 1666 stipulated that bodies of plague victims should not be buried in churches or churchyards unless the latter were particularly large, in which case a separate area had to be set aside. Any plague pits were situated far from habitation.

Another proclamation, in May 1666, ordered the killing of all cats and dogs which were suspected of spreading the sickness. The proclamation stated

No Swine, Dogs, Cats or tame Pigeons be permitted to pass up and down ... in places infected

Pepys writes, on 4th July 1666, the usual fast for the plague..In the country in several places it rages mightily and particularly in Colchester, where it hath long been, and is believed will quite depopulate the place

The plague raged through the summer but during the autumn of 1666 Josselin reports a diminishing death toll in both London and Colchester, his final entry for Colchester being on Nov 18th and, for London, December 2nd. Talk of a hoped for peace with Holland and fears of a French invasion then take over in Josselin's diary entries.

It is thought Colchester lost about half its population and London a quarter (possibly 100,000) by the end of the Great Plague. In the registers for the Parish of All Saints in the town centre of Colchester there is a memorandum stating that in 67 weeks between 8th September 1665 and 21 December 1666, 4,526 persons were buryed of the plague in Colchester and 508 died from other diseases making in all 5,034 deaths [ERO D/P 200/1/6]

In 1662 the population of Colchester was estimated at 10,305, by 1666 it was 4,114 but within ten years of the plague the population was more or less back to that of 1662.

Overall it was judged that 2.5 % of the country's population had died.

In the villages around Colchester we can only guess at the impact of the plague. Josselin mentions major outbreaks at Braintree and Bocking. He also mentions outbreaks at Coggeshall, Kelvedon, Feering, Halstead and Dedham.

Referring to Ipswich and Harwich he describes the plague as being hott in both towns. Further afield he mentions Oundle, Needham, Great Yarmouth, Royston, Oxford and Cambridge as being stricken.

Our local villages in the Winstree Hundred had previously enjoyed a healthy trade in produce and livestock with Colchester and this ceased over the best part of a year. Goods which could only be obtained from the town were not available and the markets, and fairs in Colchester were all suspended.

The fast days would have taken place at each parish church and collections taken at the end of the services.

Initially, as reported by Josselin, a rate for the relief of Colchester was levied on villages within a 5 mile radius of Colchester but as the situation worsened this was extended to cover the Hundreds of Lexden, Dunmow and Hinckford.

Locally, the Court Sessions Rolls at Epiphany 1666 list the levies on the Hundreds of Lexden, Tendring and Winstree on 13th October and 28th November 1665 for the reliefe of the poore visited with the Plague in Colchester uppon severall persons inhabiting in the severall parishes hereafter following

Below is the list of the eleven villages in the Winstree Hundred which contributed a total of £23.12s.0d in October and £28. 4s. 0d in November. Peldon's contribution was £3.16.0. and £4.16.0.

Rates for Relief

13th October     28th November
Peldon £3.16s £4.16s
Layer Marney £2.16s £2.16
Little Wigborough      £1.12s - -
Langenhoe £2.8s £2.8s
Great Wigborough £4 £4
Fingringhoe £2.16s £1.8s
Layer Breton £1.12s £2
Layer de La Haye £3.8s £4
Abberton £1.4s£1.4s
East Mersea - - £2.8s
West Mersea - -£3.4s

Court Sessions Epiphany 1666 [ERO Q/SR 407/66]

The money raised was to prove inadequate and early in 1666 Lexden, Dunmow and Hinckford were asked to contribute more; then in July, Clavering, Uttlesford, Ongar and Witham.

Amongst accounts of the Barrington Family of Hatfield Broad Oak in Uttlesford there is reference to this levying of a County-wide rate for Colchester.

A Rate made for 3 Monthes further Releife of the Borough of Colchester visited w[i]th the Plague commensinge the 24th July 1666 by order of the Quarter Sessions. [ERO D/DBa A63/13]

As the plague abated in the capital, parishes in London made weekly collections from May 1666 to help provincial towns such as Colchester. Within months, the capital was to need relief from the country again following the Great Fire of London in September 1666.

After just over a year the plague was brought under control and the panic began to subside. People learnt that personal hygiene and proper sanitation were important factors in fighting the disease. The Plague in Colchester G W Martin Essex Countryside P. 56 Winter 1956/57

Elaine Barker
Peldon History project

The Diary of Samuel Pepys
The Diary of the Reverend Josselin
The Diary of John Evelyn
Walter George The Great Plague in London
Daniel Defoe Journal of the Plague Year
I G Doolittle The Plague in Colchester Essex Archaeological Society 1972, 4: 134 - 145
G W Martin The Plague in Colchester Essex Countryside P. 56 Winter 1956/57
Rules & Orders for preventing the spreading of the Plague 11 May 1666 National Archives SP 46/131/fo64
G W Martin When Diseases Ravaged Essex Essex Countryside P 462 Sept 1962
E A Humphrey Fenn When the Fourth Horseman rode in Essex Essex Countryside P 388 July 1962
The Oath Book or Red Parchment Book of Colchester [ERO LIB/E/COLC64]

AuthorElaine Barker
SourceMersea Museum