Responses to pandemic: examples from seventeenth century Essex

Essex Record Office archivist Katharine Schofield looks back at how Essex responded to pandemics in the past – it all seems very familiar.

As we struggle in a world transformed by the coronavirus global pandemic, it is interesting to look back on events of more than 350 years ago to see how the county coped with a major epidemic, in this case, of bubonic plague in 1665.

In the 17th century nobody knew what caused plague or how to treat it.  There was an understanding that it was spread by contact, but there was no knowledge of how this happened until the 19th century.  Today, we look to central government, as well as local authorities, to provide the essential services to protect us.  By 1665 there was an established procedure to deal with epidemics in parishes and towns.  There was, however, little in co-ordination beyond the individual places where the plague struck.

It was widely believed that miasma (bad smells) were to blame for the spread of plague.  It was of course also well-established that you could catch the plague from another infected person.  Stray cats and dogs were also blamed and the chamberlain’s roll for the borough of Colchester (D/B 5 Aa1/23) records payments of 13s. 6d. to Samuel Younger whoe was imployed to kill dogs and catts and a further 18s. to the dogg killer.

1 D-B 5 Aa 1-23-a CROP dogs cats with REF

To Samuel Younger, dog and cat killer 13s. 6d. (D/B 5 Aa1/23, Colchester Borough, Chamberlains’ Accounts, 1665)

The first line of defence was to try to stop people travelling and spreading the infection.  On 27 June 1636 the bailiffs of the borough of Maldon provided a certificate (D/B 3/3/207) to George and Sarah Hunt of York who had arrived in the town on 11 June to stay with Sarah’s brother Alderman Joseph Hills.  The certificate stated that they had not left the Borough neither have they since their coming beene neere the Cittie of London nor any other infected place and that they asked for this Testimoniall for their more safety in their travel , concluding  with the statement that Maldon and the whole county of Essex for ought we know, through the mercie of God, yet are free and cleere from the Infection of the plague.

2 D-B 3-3-207 CROP Maldon with REF

Certificate issued to George and Sarah Hunt of York. (D/B 3/3/207, Maldon Borough, Court Papers, 1636)

The use of certificates was not always a complete success.  At the Michaelmas Quarter Sessions of 1665 (Q/SR 406/104) a case was presented on the evidence of John Branch, a grocer from Wivenhoe.  He had a warrant to stop people coming to Wivenhoe from London not having lawful certificates and that any people without certificates should be stopped from landing.  Hewes, the master of a packet boat moored at Wivenhoe Quay had many passengers from London and Branch required that passengers should not come ashore without a certificate showing that they were infection free, but they refused to obey and pressed by violence to come on shore.  Branch asked two passers-by, Thomas Collin and Thomas Clarke to assist him.  Instead of assisting him, Clarke bid a turd in [Branch’s] teeth and Collin took his boat to help the passengers ashore.

Plague spread out to Essex from London.  In mid-July Samuel Pepys visited Dagenham and recorded in his diary that all these great people here are afeared of London, being doubtful of anything that comes from thence or that hath lately been there.  The epidemic first reached Chelmsford and Colchester the following month.  Both Colchester and Harwich traded directly with Rotterdam, where plague had raged since the previous year and this perhaps explains why Colchester was to suffer more.

By the mid-16th century it was customary to isolate the infected in their own homes which would be marked with a cross, or in a pest house, if available.  Colchester’s assembly book for May 1666 (D/B 5 Gb4 f.319-320) records payments to a Halloway of the parish of St. Giles who was paid £4 9s. for making ye crosses on ye doors of infected houses and a further £4 1s. for making red crosses.  In Chelmsford 1s. 4d. was paid to Blakeley for stapleing up severall dores and 10 stapells.

We have seen how quickly the Nightingale Hospitals have been built in different locations round the country and in 1665 Colchester built a pesthouse in the parish of St. Mary-at-the-Walls to accommodate plague victims who could not ‘self-isolate’ at home.  The account roll of Thomas Merridale, chamberlain for the borough (D/B 5 Aa1/23) includes payments of 7s. to Goodman Johnson for glazing and £2 10s. to Goodman Amsden for masonry work.  The scale of the epidemic in Colchester was such that one pest house was insufficient and another was built in Mile End at a cost of between £86 and £92, roughly the equivalent of wages for three and a half years for a skilled craftsman.  In Chelmsford an isolated house was purchased to house the sick at Stump Cross (today the location of the Wood Street roundabout) with 1s. 2d. paid for making cleare a house at Stumpe Crosse.

We are of course lucky today to have the National Health Service to care for the sick and for income support from central government for people and businesses.  We have also witnessed fund-raising efforts for NHS and other charities.  In 1665 there was no support from central government for people unable to work through sickness and individual parishes and towns made their own provision for plague victims.  They were soon overwhelmed by demand.

Such was the level of distress in Colchester that money was raised to relieve the suffering of the poor.  At Earls Colne, the Revd. Ralph Josselin recorded on 4 October 1665 Wee remembered poore Colchester in our collection, neare 30s. and sent them formerly £4.  In 1665 Essex was part of the Diocese of London and the Borough assembly book for 9 October 1665 (D/B 5 Gb4 f.315) records The distribucion of the £16 7s. of the Charitable monys collected in the Country upon Fast days towards the releefe of the infected poore granted to this Towne by the Bishop of London.  Nine days later a further £30 was distributed.

Money was also raised for Colchester throughout Essex by order of Quarter Sessions, administratively the predecessor of the County Council.  This started with parishes within 5 miles of the town and gradually spread further afield.  On 11 November 1665 the assembly book records that Alderman Moore received fower score and ten pounds of the hundred and Eight pounds taxed upon the Country five miles distant from this Towne for one Month last past.  As need grew, five miles was later extended to the Hundreds of Lexden, Dunmow and Hinckford, with churchwardens’ accounts in Little Sampford and Great Bromley recording the money raised.  Chelmsford’s plague outbreak had started at the same time as Colchester and by January 1666 distress had risen so that Quarter Sessions agreed a similar rate to be paid by the hundreds of Chelmsford, Rochford and Dengie for the relief of the town.

By May 1666 weekly collections were being made in London parishes for Colchester (£2,700 were raised by these means) and the assembly book on 13 May records a collection made in all London churches.

On occasion money was given by individuals for the use or releefe of the afflicted or infected poore of Colchester (D/B 5 Gb4 f.324-325). On 6 June 1666 the borough received £57 5s. 5d. collected in the city of Exeter, in May £20 was given by a London merchant unwilling to discover his name.  Sometimes the gifts were made by people with local connections, Sir Harbottle Grimston, Master of the Rolls gave £20 for the infected poore and in July £5 was given by Thomas Clarke of Ipswich, described as the son of a former sergeant at mace of Colchester.  In Braintree, another badly affected town, Charles, Earl of Warwick gave 2 bullocks a week and £12 to maintain a doctor and apothecary and his servants gave £20, while Lord Maynard gave 30 sheep and £10 and the inhabitants of Coggeshall £33.

3 D-B 5 Gb4-3-d CROP with REF

Sir Harbottle Grimston’s gift of £20. (D/B 5 Gb4, Colchester Borough, Assembly Book, 1665)

In total approximately around £5,000 was raised and spent in Colchester, the equivalent of more than 195 years of the wages of a skilled craftsman.  Costs were estimated at the height of the epidemic to be in the region of £500 a month.  In Chelmsford in September 1665 the parish spent £27, in October it peaked at £73 (more than three years’ wages of a skilled craftsman).  A total of £686 (around 27 years of wages) was spent before the plague ended.

4 D-P 122-8-1 CROP with REF

Rate collected in Little Sampford for the relief of Colchester. (D/P 122/8/1, Lt Sampford St Mary, Parish Book, 1666)

We have become accustomed in recent weeks to ‘social distancing’ when outside.  In Colchester in 1665 the searchers, who ascertained the cause of death of plague victims, and bearers, who carried the bodies to their burial swore an oath that Yee shall live together where you shall be appointed and not walke abroad more than necessity requires and that onely in the execution of your office of Searchers [or Bearers].  Yee shall decline, and absent yourselves from your familys, and allwaies avoide the societye of people and in your walke shall keepe as far distant from Men as may be allways carrying in your hands a white wand by which the people may know you and shunn and avoide you (D/B 5 R1 f. 217).

 Colchester appointed its first bearers James Barton and John Cooke on 16 August 1665.  In October the assembly book records the name of the two surgeons, Mr Raer (Chirurgeon and Pestmaster) and Mr Hendrik (a Dutch Chirurgeon) and the searcher Mr Streete.  In Chelmsford, the overseers’ accounts (D/P 94/12/2) convey something of the stresses that the disease brought.  John Green was appointed to manage the situation and he recorded payments made to him, including £5 promised me for my extraordinary care and trouble in looking after ye infected families in Moulsham and later 15s. for fire and candle and beer spended at my house those nights the corps were buryd.  The accounts include payments to bearers Daniel Stevens and Michael Hatton and 3s. to Widow Roberts and Widow Jurmay for laying forth 3 Corps and watching one night.

5 D-P 94-12-2-a CROP with REF

Payments £5 and 15 shillings paid to John Green. (D/P 94/12/2, Chelmsford St Mary, Overseers’ accounts, 1665)

Today, we are grateful to the dedication of all the key workers who are keeping the country working, feeding the nation and of course, to the NHS staff on the front line.  Their dedication reflects that of people in 1665-1666 who battled the plague and tried to keep their communities safe from disease.

Katharine Schofield


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