March 5, 2021

Highlights from A Journal of a Plague Year

The book is a semi-fictionalized account of the 1665 plague in London, first published in 1722. The complete text is available on Project Gutenberg.

Social distancing

…if I met anybody in the street I would cross the way from them.

…whether it were in the street or in the fields, if we had seen anybody coming, it was a general method to walk away…

…coaches were dangerous things, and people did not care to venture into them, because they did not know who might have been carried in them last, and sick, infected people were…ordinarily carried in them to the pest-houses…

…I saw a poor man walking on the bank….At last I fell into some talk, at a distance, with this poor man…

…a vast number of people locked themselves up, so as not to come abroad into any company at all, nor suffer any that had been abroad in promiscuous company to come into their houses, or near them—at least not so near them as to be within the reach of their breath…


…all trade, except such as related to immediate subsistence, was, as it were, at a full stop.

…the greatest part of the poor or families who formerly lived by their labour, or by retail trade, lived now on charity…

…let any man consider what must be the miserable condition of this town if, on a sudden, they should be all turned out of employment, that labour should cease, and wages for work be no more.

This was the case with us at that time; and had not the sums of money contributed in charity by well-disposed people of every kind…been prodigiously great, it had not been in the power of the Lord Mayor and sheriffs to have kept the public peace.

Travel restrictions

…for some weeks that there was no getting at the Lord Mayor’s door without exceeding difficulty; there were such pressing and crowding there to get passes and certificates of health for such as travelled abroad, for without these there was no being admitted to pass through the towns upon the road, or to lodge in any inn.

…it was rumoured that an order of the Government was to be issued out to place turnpikes and barriers on the road to prevent people travelling, and that the towns on the road would not suffer people from London to pass for fear of bringing the infection along with them, though neither of these rumours had any foundation but in the imagination, especially at-first.

Forced quarantine

[From a City of London order]: “That to every infected house there be appointed two watchmen, one for every day, and the other for the night; and that these watchmen have a special care that no person go in or out of such infected houses whereof they have the charge, upon pain of severe punishment. And the said watchmen to do such further offices as the sick house shall need and require: and if the watchman be sent upon any business, to lock up the house and take the key with him; and the watchman by day to attend until ten of the clock at night, and the watchman by night until six in the morning.”

…several violences were committed and injuries offered to the men who were set to watch the houses so shut up; also several people broke out by force in many places…

Many…escapes were made out of infected houses, as particularly when the watchman was sent of some errand; for it was his business to go of any errand that the family sent him of; that is to say, for necessaries, such as food and physic; to fetch physicians, if they would come, or surgeons, or nurses, or to order the dead-cart, and the like; but with this condition, too, that when he went he was to lock up the outer door of the house and take the key away with him. To evade this…people got two or three keys made to their locks, or they found ways to unscrew the locks…and while they sent away the watchman to the market, to the bakehouse, or for one trifle or another, open the door and go out as often as they pleased. But this being found out, the officers afterwards had orders to padlock up the doors on the outside, and place bolts on them as they thought fit.

…there was not less than eighteen or twenty [watchmen] killed, or so wounded as to be taken up for dead, which was supposed to be done by the people in the infected houses which were shut up, and where they attempted to come out and were opposed.

Nor, indeed, could less be expected, for here were so many prisons in the town as there were houses shut up; and as the people shut up or imprisoned so were guilty of no crime, only shut up because miserable, it was really the more intolerable to them.

…they blew up a watchman with gunpowder, and burned the poor fellow dreadfully…

…it was said there was at one time ten thousand houses shut up…


…as I had convenience both for brewing and baking, I went and bought two sacks of meal, and for several weeks, having an oven, we baked all our own bread…


Neither did I do what I know some did: keep the spirits always high and hot with cordials and wine and such things; and which…one learned physician used himself so much to as that he could not leave them off when the infection was quite gone, and so became a sot for all his life after.

Aversion to cash

…the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose. The buyer carried always small money to make up any odd sum, that they might take no change.

The end

…the very first weeks’ bill [counting plague deaths] decreased 1,843; a vast number indeed!

It is impossible to express the change that appeared in the very countenances of the people that Thursday morning when the weekly bill came out…They shook one another by the hands in the streets, who would hardly go on the same side of the way with one another before. Where the streets were not too broad they would open their windows and call from one house to another, and ask how they did, and if they had heard the good news that the plague was abated. Some would return, when they said good news, and ask, ‘What good news?’ and when they answered that the plague was abated and the bills decreased almost two thousand, they would cry out, ‘God be praised!’ and would weep aloud for joy, telling them they had heard nothing of it; and such was the joy of the people that it was, as it were, life to them from the grave.

And yet after all, though the poor came to town very precipitantly…the rich made no such haste. The men of business, indeed, came up, but many of them did not bring their families to town till the spring came on, and that they saw reason to depend upon it that the plague would not return.

The Court, indeed, came up soon after Christmas, but the nobility and gentry, except such as depended upon and had employment under the administration, did not come so soon.