Plague - our frequent visitor
Disaster historian John Withington is the author of a number of books on the history of disasters. Here he looks at the plagues of Bristol - and what the past may be able to teach us about the current pandemic.
BRISTOL is a prime suspect as the place in which the most devastating epidemic in British history came into the country in the summer of 1348. The Black Death would kill up to 40 per cent of people in England.
Although other places such as Southampton and Melcombe Regis in Dorset are pointed to as entry points, Bristol appears to be the first major city to have been hit. Its population then was about 10,000, and between 35 and 40 per cent of them perished, so that ‘the living were scarce able to bury the dead.’
As generally happens, the rich survived better than the poor, but at least 15 out of 52 people on the town council died. The city was deserted, with grass growing several inches high in the High Street and Broad Street. Most, though not all, historians believe the Black Death was bubonic plague, perhaps working with its lethal relatives, pneumonic and septicaemic plague.
As the plague spread, nearly half the priests in the diocese of Bath and Wells died, and there were not enough of them to hear people’s final confessions, so the bishop authorised lay people to take them, decreeing that if no one else was available, ‘even a woman’ could perform the task.
Gloucester banned any visitors or trade from Bristol to try to keep the disease out, but as it was being spread (though no one knew it at the time) by rats’ fleas, this had limited effect.
Over the next three centuries, plague would be a frequent, unwelcome visitor. Bristol was hit a number of times including 1564 and 1575, and in 1603, the first year of James I’s reign, the city suffered another 2,200 victims. Bubonic plague caused a horrible death with swellings as big as an apple appearing under the armpits, accompanied by black blotches beneath the skin and an agonising thirst. Favourite remedies like treacle, crab’s eyes, rhubarb or smoking tobacco had little effect.
During this era, Bristol was also hit by the ‘sweating sickness,’ or ‘English sweat,’ a rather mysterious illness, perhaps flu. In 1551, it was said to have ‘carried off many hundreds of the inhabitants every week.’ It really scared people because of the speed with which it could kill. Victims could be ‘merry at dinner, and dead at supper.’ The sickness almost claimed the life of Anne Boleyn before she married Henry VIII.
By the 19th century, cholera was the enemy. In 1830, a clergyman from Camerton, near Bath, described Bristol as ‘a vast and dirty city,’ and it was officially considered one of the unhealthiest in the country, with an ‘inadequate’ water supply.
As cholera stalked the land, in November 1831, the Bristol Board of Health urged people to clean their privies, whitewash their walls, but above all, to pray for God’s mercy. In 1832, the disease arrived in the city and killed 600.
Just as no one knew at the time that rats’ fleas were spreading the plague, so it was a long while before scientists realised cholera was caused by contaminated water, but when the disease returned to Bristol in 1849, the Board of Health declared ‘deficient and poisonous water’ was one of the causes.
Cholera also brought a horrible death. The body could lose pints of fluid in a few minutes, and become shrunken and shrivelled. There would be acute pains which would spread up the limbs and were often accompanied by agony in the stomach. The victim found it hard to breathe, as air came out of the mouth with a low whining or moaning sound. Sometimes the pain was so severe the body convulsed almost into a ball, and could only be put back into its normal shape after death.
Perhaps the cruellest of all the great epidemics was ‘Spanish flu’ (though it probably originated in Asia) which appeared just as the First World War was drawing to a close and carried off many people who survived that terrible conflict.
By the end of October 1918, schools in Bristol were closed, attempts were being made to limit overcrowding on public transport, and there was a very partial lockdown, but everyone still had to go to work because the war was still on. People were told to gargle with salt and bicarbonate of soda and get plenty of fresh air.
November 11 finally saw the armistice, and after people had been put through four years of hell, it must have seemed inhuman to deny them their celebrations, so pretty well everyone turned out. In one week that November, nearly 170 died of Spanish flu in Bristol, and the overall death toll was probably ten times that.
So what can these past epidemics teach us about coronavirus? The government keep saying they are ‘following the science,’ but if you had ‘followed the science’ when cholera appeared it would not have helped much. Scientists were arguing over whether the disease was contagious or caused by ‘bad air.’ They were all wrong. It took a renegade doctor to establish that the culprit was actually infected drinking water, and many in the scientific establishment fought him tooth and nail.
And even when a path out of cholera was identified, not all politicians wanted to take it. In 1854, parliament refused to renew the powers of the Board of Health, as
The Times rejoiced: ‘We prefer to take our chance of cholera and the rest than be bullied into health.’ It is rare that ‘the science’ is a single, united view. Scientists can offer only advice, often conflicting advice, and it is the job of politicians to decide, let’s hope – wisely.
But one lesson from history does appear to have been learned. The diarist Samuel Pepys who lived through the Great Plague of 1665 in London lamented that it ‘made us cruel as dogs to one another.’ Many nurses left their patients to starve, while doctors fled to the country, and the deserted Royal College of Physicians got little sympathy when it was burgled. Happily, today the response of the medical profession and other front line workers has been nothing short of heroic.
John Withington is the author of a number of books on the history of disasters, including A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press, 2005) and A Disastrous History of the World (Piatkus, 2008).
In 1348 the Black Death would kill up to 40 per cent of people .... Over the next three centuries, plague would be a frequent, unwelcome visitor. Bristol was hit a number of times including 1564 and 1575, and in 1603 the city suffered another 2,200 victims
A 19th century woodcut depicting plague victims being buried in 1665 Image: CSU Archives / Everett Collection / Rex Features