THE GREAT PLAGUE
The first recorded victim of the Great Plague of 1665, exactly 350 years ago, was a woman called Margaret Porteous. Not much is known of her except that she was poor and lived in the overcrowded wooden houses and effluentfilled streets of St Giles in the Fields, to the west of the City of London.
She would have become ill not more than two weeks prior to her death, experiencing headaches, vomiting and fever. The telltale signs of plague on her body were swellings (buboes) in the lymph nodes of the armpits, groin and neck.
Margaret was buried in Covent Garden. She would have been identified as a bubonic plague victim by the ‘searchers of the dead’ who were generally old women whose job it was to examine a corpse to ascertain the cause of death. They would report to the parish clerk for which they were paid a fee, and parish records were kept up to date.
A calamity had been expected, as people had seen a comet in December and they were widely believed to be portents of great events. Plague was feared, as it had already been raging in Amsterdam. England was at war with Holland and plague may have come over with prisoners of war; or in infected cotton bales from Holland – apparently trade in commodities continued despite the war.
The plague was not new, this was a recurrence of epidemics that had happened since the Black Death in the 14th century. It was a bubonic infection caused by a bacteria carried by bites from fleas that had migrated from dead rats. However, your ancestors would not have described it as such – they would have said it was caused by bad air.
Who Do You Think You Are? Two men find the body of a young woman lying in the street during the Great Plague of London