In Everything You Know About London is Wrong, author and London expert Matt Brown takes the reader on a great ride through London’s history, exploding a range of myths along the way. Read on to find out whether the Great Fire of London actually wiped out the Great Plague.
by Matt Brown
The Great Fire of London wiped out the Great Plague: one of the great canards in London’s history. Did the 1666 fire really put an end to the Great Plague? It’s a claim that’s tempted educators for centuries. The timing looks perfect: everybody falls ill in 1665, then a vast, cleansing fire wipes out the disease in 1666. A neat and tidy just-so story, but correlation does not always imply causation.
For starters, the plague had eased considerably by September 1666, the month of the fire. Already by February of that year the royal court and entourage had moved back to the capital. In March, the Lord Chancellor deemed London to be as crowded as had ever been seen. When the Great Fire swept through London half a year later, it struck a city that was already well on the road to recovery. It should also be remembered that the fire only damaged the City proper. The suburbs, including plague-intensive regions such as St Giles, were completely untouched by the blaze. The fire had no direct effect on the disease in these quarters.
While the Great Fire did not wipe out the plague, it did help bring about conditions that would be less favourable to further outbreaks. The city was rebuilt to better standards, and (slightly) more sanitary conditions prevailed. These improvements were no doubt a contributory factor in keeping plague at bay in the following centuries.
A few other myths persist about the Great Plague of 1665–66. It was by no means the only disease to ravage England, nor the worst. The so-called Black Death of 1348–1350 wiped out a much higher percentage of the population – round a third of England, compared with something like 3 per cent in the 1665 outbreak. Earlier seventeenth-century epidemics, notably in 1603 and 1625, were not quite so virulent as the Great Plague of 1665, but they weren’t far off. The 1665 epidemic gets more attention for several reasons: it was the last big outbreak of plague in this country; many contemporary accounts survive, unlike earlier medieval plagues; and it just so happened to occur at a time when plenty of other big stuff was going on. That the plague struck London not long after the restoration of the monarchy and just before the Great Fire of 1666 helps secure its place in our historical memory.
Finally, we can also pooh-pooh one of the most terrifying icons of the plague: the beaked helmet. Visual depictions of the disease often show sinister figures roaming the streets in these eccentric headpieces. They served as a kind of primitive gas mask for plague doctors. The beak-like appendage would be stuffed with lavender and other sweet-smelling aromatics in a bid to ward off the foul odours often blamed for the plague. Accentuating the macabre look, the doctors would also sport a broad-brimmed hat and ankle-length overcoat. A wooden cane completed the costume, and allowed physicians to examine patients without the need for personal contact. While this protective gear is well documented on the Continent, particularly in Italy, there is no good evidence that the costume was ever worn in London. It can’t be entirely ruled out, but one would have thought that such a distinctive ensemble would have made it on to the pages of Pepys’s diary, or some other first-hand account of the plague.
Extracted from Everything You Know About London is Wrong by Matt Brown, published by Batsford.