On 6 August 1665, John New, a weaver in the bustling London parish of Cripplegate, watched his son and daughter die from what local broadsheets were already calling “The Great Plague”. The latest outbreak of this fearful disease, and the efforts taken to control its spread through one of Europe’s largest commercial centres, struck weavers like New, as well as other artisans and tradespeople, particularly hard.
Hours or days before, New would have spotted painful black swellings, known as buboes, around the groins, armpits or necks of his children. Such was the fear of plague spreading through the city that symptoms like this had to be reported to the authorities within just two hours. The children would have soon experienced headaches, vomiting and pain so intense that many victims were overcome with frenzy. Their swellings would have turned red, purple or black and may have ruptured to form open sores. The only mercy for New and his family was that death – a near certainty – came quickly.
Despite published precautions and remedies, the only sure way to avoid this fate – which appeared to befall rich and poor alike – was to leave the city. New would have had plenty of time to consider this course of action. It’s possible he would have heard about the spreading “contagion” two months before, when the first weaver in Cripplegate died from the disease and the city’s playhouses closed. A month later the Lord Mayor issued orders designed to control the infection and, by the middle of June, New couldn’t have failed to notice that Londoners were fleeing the city in droves.
So homewards and to the Cross Keys at Cripplegate, where I find all the towne almost going out of towne, the coaches and waggons being all full of people going into the country.
Even after a hundred local people involved in his trade had died, and the Bishop of London had announced that “many thousands of poore Artisans” were on the brink of starvation due to lack of business, New remained in the pestilential city. In fact, though diarist Samuel Pepys claimed “all the towne” was leaving, tradespeople like New, and the city’s poorest inhabitants, had little option but to stay.