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The Great Plague of 1665

The Plague of 1665, more infamously known as the Great Plague, was the name given to a widespread series of diseases that was estimated to have killed from 75,000 to 100,000 people in England. This staggering number of casualties comprised almost a fifth of the entire population of London!

While the main disease that characterized the Great Plague was the bubonic plague, other lesser-known disease which shared the symptomatic patterns of bubonic plague were also present at this time, such as septicemic plague and pneumonic plague. The bubonic plague's primary cause is an infection by the Yersinia Pestis bacterium, which is commonly spread by rats.

The Great Plague that occurred in 1665 to 1666 was actually on a much smaller scale than the Black Death plague that occurred over most of Europe between 1347 and 1353. The Great Plague however was marked by history as such because it was one of the last widespread disease outbreaks that affected Europe.

Many possible causes have been attributed to the spread of the bubonic plague throughout Europe, but in all likelihood it was probably due to a combination of many factors. Thought to have arrived in Britain on board the many Dutch trading ships that carried shipments of cotton from Amsterdam, instances of the plague had actually been recorded sporadically in the Netherlands from as far back as 1654.

The first instances of the disease in Britain were recorded outside of London in districts such as the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. This area and many others similar to it, proved to be particularly fertile breeding grounds for the disease due to its extremely squalid living conditions that housed many poor workers in cramped and very unsanitary conditions.

Many deaths from the disease were reported in the winter of 1664-1665 but this number dwindled down fairly rapidly. This was probably due to the extremely cold winter of the time, which somehow served to slow the spread of contagion. When spring and summer came around however, it was unusually hot and sunny and this caused the disease to spread even more rapidly than before. As was the case in those days, records kept on the poorer communities tended to be quite sketchy and as such, the first recorded case of infection was of Margaret Porteous recorded in April 12, 1665.

By July of 1665, the disease had alarmingly spread inwards into the city of London causing the then monarch, Charles II to seek refuge in Oxford along with his family and court. Certain officials stayed on in the city though, such as the Lord Mayor and the aldermen. Business ground down to a halt in the city due to the mass evacuation of several businessmen and merchants. A small number of clergymen and physicians stayed on in the city as well to tend to the spiritual and physical needs of those left behind.

Fires were ordered burned day and night in the city in the hopes of halting the spread of infection although it is doubtful that this measure was of any benefit. The number of casualties continued to grow steadily until the Great Fire of September 1666, in which it was suspected that many disease-carrying rats were exterminated, thereby halting the progress of the disease.

Original Authors: Doods Pangburn
Edit Update Authors: M.A.Harris
Updated On: 28/07/2008

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