The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Saturday, June 06, 2020

The Great Plague of Colchester 1665-1666

Because the last outbreak of the pneumonic plague was over a hundred years ago, September I3th, I910, we no longer have a profound fear of Bacillus Pestis. However, it was, at one time, the scourge of Essex. Colchester suffered its worst outbreak of the Plague from the summer of 1665 to December, 1666. The town had been in the process of recovering from the siege of the town by Parliamentary forces in 1648 when it experienced what was probably the greatest of all provincial plagues since the Black Death, though the plague at York in 1390 may run it close. The scale of death in Colchester is much easier to gauge because of the meticulous records kept of the weekly totals of deaths. The small number of deaths from ordinary causes at the time is a good measure of the extent to which anyone who could do so left the town. There is a mention in a local diary in August 1665 that "Colchester seek into the country for dwellings".

Those that died in the seventeen months, 5345 in all, included 4817 plague-deaths and only 528 from other causes, far fewer than usual.

The non-plague deaths tell an interesting story. If one assumes that the weekly death rate is reasonably constant (it is usually higher in winter, which is why undertakers did building work in the summer months), it suggests that the population was greatly diminished for over a year.

It would be wrong to suggest that the town people who had to remain within the town walls were callously abandoned to their fate. For the relief of suffering in Colchester, collections from the town’s churches realised 17 pounds in the first three months. A tax raised £217 4s. from the villages within five miles of Colchester, which included the houses of some of the wealthier people. Private donations raised a further £270. Early in 1666 the J.P.s ordered that £250 a month for the three months be levied on the Hundreds of Lexden , Dunmow and Hinckford. In addition £121 in aid was given by the Hundreds of Clavering , Uttlesford, Ongar and Witham. In July, £1,307 had been collected from donations in the London churches. This all amounted to what was then a very large sum, though it was only just sufficient for the needs

We know, from surviving documents, that this money was generally spent carefully, for the relief of suffering. A great deal was, inevitably, spent in the hospitalisation of sufferers and for their burial. There were at least two Plague hospitals (Pest Houses) built, one in St. Marys parish, the other at Mile End. According to an entry in the Oath Book dated 16 August 1665 the 'Bearers', who buried the dead were paid 10s. a week with an additional l2s. for every corpse buried. These men were isolated entirely, even from their own families and they had to carry a white wand as a means of identification, and allow others to avoid close contact. They had to carry the corpses 'to the ground', probably the 'Mount' close to the Mersea Road. 

Sadly, the horrendous extent of the plague in Colchester might well be the result of the generosity of the contributions. There was enough money to employ people to exterminate all the cats and dogs in the town, who were at the time considered possible carriers of the plague.  By doing this, the city burghers ensured that there was nothing to control the rat population that settled happily in the deserted houses. Rats and their fleas were, we now know, the agents by which people were infected with the plague. The 'experts' aren't always to be trusted. This might also explain why the second phase of the disease was greater than the first, despite all the precautions being in place.

Colchester seems to have made a rapid recovery from the awful events of 1666 and 1667.The more affluent townspeople had escaped the worst ravages by leaving the walled town. This was typical of the big London plagues. In Colchester, the entrepreneurs frequently escaped death by moving quickly to their estates in the surrounding countryside. When there was recovery, they were quickly able to get their establishments up and running again. The town's economy rebounded. Labouring folk in unskilled trades, who died in the epidemic, were quickly replaced by immigrants moving into Colchester in search of work took their places. The trade in fuller's earth at Colchester increased during the post-plague period, indicating that weaving was continuing. The coastwise shipments of "New Draperies" from the town regained pre-plague proportions. The export of oysters also reached new heights during these years. Colchester was once more in business and the subsequent decline in the cloth trade was caused by politics in France, but not plague.


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