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 Post - - OPINION -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.