THE GREAT PLAGUE

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - BEHIND THE HEADLINES -

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

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