The Great Plague was one of the worst disasters in London’s history. Samuel Pepys’s diaries provide a fascinating insight into how Londoner’s dealt with this tragedy.
The Great Plague
In the summer of 1665 Londoners were dying from a horrible and familiar disease. Although it was a regular visitor to the city, bubonic plague had returned with a vengeance. By the end of the year, the ‘Great Plague’ had taken the lives of almost 69,000 people, although the true figure was probably nearer 100,000 – almost a quarter of London’s population.
‘Great fears of the sickenesse here in the City’
Nevertheless, unlike many of those who had the opportunity, Pepys remained in London for much of that year, and even after he and his employer were forced to relocate to Greenwich in the late summer, he commuted by river from there to his home in Seething Lane near the Tower of London and visited other parts of the capital. During this time his diary and letters report a rapidly worsening situation, a devastated population, and his own worries, grief and fears.
‘The towne grows very sickly’
Pepys is the best source for understanding the desperation and frustration of officialdom in dealing with a catastrophe that they didn’t fully understand. In early June he described his first encounter with their futile measures to control the spread, ‘I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me’. As with previous outbreaks, it was decreed that any house where plague was identified should be shut up for 40 days with the family inside, marked with a cross and be guarded by watchmen.
‘My apprehensions of it great’
‘I have never lived so merrily’
Against this backdrop of pestilence, fear and apprehension, however, much of Pepys’s life in 1665 went on as usual. He still worked at the Navy Office, continued his adulterous liaisons, celebrated his cousin’s wedding, and pursued many of his interests. Surprisingly the year brought much opportunity and wealth Pepys’s way and, as the plague subsided, he wrote in his final diary entry for the year, ‘I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time’.
Discover more about Pepys and the Great Plague in our major new exhibition, Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution