Great Plague in London

News that scientists examining human remains found during the Crossrail excavations have identified the bacterial cause of the Great Plague of London (it’s Yersinia pestis), had the Today programme dipping into its copy of A Journal of the Plague Year. Rather than descriptions of symptoms and mass burials, here’s a peep at what Daniel Defoe had to say about our neck of the woods in his novel about the 1665-6 outbreak.

 

Dulwich actually gets but a single mention, in which Defoe describes how people fled plague-ravaged Limehouse and Wapping, heading for the open and woody country of Dullege and nearby Camberwell, Norwood and Lusum (Lewisham). Unfortunately, the locals were scared of getting infected themselves and didn’t dare to help them. Some of those luckless people ended up starving to death in the woods.

The Great Plague killed nearly a quarter of London’s population. Vanessa Harding, professor of London history at Birkbeck, University of London, told Today that those who fared best were people that got out of London. The Dulwich vignette shows that didn’t always work.

Dulwich itself didn’t escape the plague though. J. F. D. Shrewsbury’ A History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles reports 35 deaths among Dulwich residents, though the college was largely untouched, with two poor scholars, the kitchen boy and the cook succumbing.