The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Friday, April 22, 2005

A Plague on Braintree

In the summer of 1665, a third of the population of Braintree died of the plague. Nearly one thousand died and the town as quarantined from the rest of Essex. Local people had to rely on the generosity of others in providing food which was left in a field outside Rayne. The Earl of Warwick left two bullocks a week and Lord Maynard sent thirty sheep.

Most of the survivors refused to leave their houses, where they felt safe from infection. Long grass and weeds grew in the streets. It was not until the end of summer that the town began to recover.

Braintree was not the only place to suffer. The plague had spread from London into Essex and it ravaged the county. In Colchester half the population of around 9,000 people (4,731) people died. This was probably the most destructive attack of plague in any town in England. Such was the misery and commercial collapse in Essex that agriculture failed, and famine set in. Legislation was passed to prevent the hoarding of grain, and was strictly enforced by the constables of the parishes. Strangely, Chelmsford and Saffron Walden were more or less spared, which takes some explanation as many of the prople of Braintree had fled to Chelmsford when the plague had struck their own town.

Historians have always assumed that the plague had come from the London Docks, spread throughout London and thence to Essex, and it is true that the towns of Essex near London were badly affected, but Colchester's plague seemed to come early on, and Essex was worse affected than any other county. It is possible that it was Colchester's port, the Hythe, that was responsible for hosting the arrival of this virulent strain of the Plague.

The science of medicine was in its infancy, and there were no effective measures against the plague except quarantine, and this was impossible to enforce adequately. Many lotions and potions were suggested. Walden's Saffron trade was given a boost at the time by the idea that Saffron was an effective remedy; Curiously, Saffron Waldon escaped the plague though the reputation of Saffron may have been a consequence of their luck. Cures for the plage abounded: the pamphlet 'Harry Hangman's Honor' (1655) offered the following bit of curious information: "Take a fresh stoole from a sweet proper beautiful lady or gentlewoman, aged forty years, being wrapped up in a sweet clean linen handkerchief and applied to the nose, it is an excellent antidote against the plague". This was not an isolated example of the belief in the efficacy of excrement. Human, horse, and even pig feces were considered to be valuable medicine. Indeed, W. Parks's 'The Curtain-Drawer of the World' (1612) listed the dung of humans, hens, wolves, and doves as well as the vomit of dogs as medicinally valuable (p. 6)


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