The Great Plague in Cambridge 1665-1666

Stapleford History Society 11th July 2023

A talk by Professor Emerita Evelyn Lord

The similarities between the Great Plague and its societal consequences and what we have recently experienced with Covid-19 were brought out by the speaker. There are two types of plague: bubonic, caused by the transfer of a bacterial infection from the fleas on rats, and pneumonic with Covid-19, caused by a sort of cold virus, being the most recent example. The Great Plague was clearly bubonic while the symptoms of Covid-19 were clearly pneumonic. The outcome for many was the same.

In 1658, after an earlier outbreak of bubonic plague in 1646, the four Pest Houses in Cambridge were repaired at a cost of £189-1-9, in case they were needed again. In 1665 the deaths began. The first to die in Cambridge was a small boy, John Worley, who had black spots on his chest. His brother died soon afterwards; the house was closed up, a red cross daubed on the door and a forty-day quarantine was imposed.

Just as Covid-19 was initially spread by international travellers, the plague was spread by people moving from one place to another. We were fighting a war against the Dutch and the Press Gang seized approximately 80 Cambridge men who were taken to Harwich to be sailors and 400 men to be soldiers. Eventually this forced movement of men had to stop and Plague Orders were introduced to stop public meetings. Even cats, dogs and pigeons were not allowed to be outside. Inns and shops were closed.

The unusually hot weather during 1665-66 combined with an occasional hard frost helped to promote feelings of false optimism about the situation but by the end of August 1666 every Cambridge parish was affected. By October the plague had reached Impington. Although some tried to blame the poor, with their overcrowded and unhygienic houses for their own death toll, it soon became apparent that the plague was no respecter of wealth or status. It even created a new class of poor, as the colleges, which had provided much employment for locals, had closed. Even the harvest was left to rot as there was no-one to gather it in. A Bill of Mortality recorded 920 burials: approximately 12% of the city population.

Eventually, in December 1666 there was a Declaration that normal life could resume and inns and shops could re-open. Those who had survived had cleaner houses as soap had become cheaper but, more importantly, they had built up immunity from contact with the plague in the 1640s. Scientists are now sure that they can isolate a gene – CCR5^32 – which, if you have it, indicates that one of your ancestors must have survived the 14th or 17th century plague. Perhaps this is known to us as having T cells?!

[report by Jane Steadman]