Over the past few days I have been reading my book, Jeopardy of Every Wind, on my Kindle. I did not think that I would ever do that. I have heard so many authors say that they do not/cannot read their books once they have been published. During the period between finishing it and publication, each time I had to read any of it was a chore: I was proof reading, responding the questions/comments from publisher and proof readers or writing one of my talks. I have been so surprised that it has been an absolute pleasure to read in a relaxed manner. Do not misunderstand me. I still think that parts could have been written better and have noticed errors not found during proof reading (inevitable, I know) but I do that with every book I read these days!
One passage so far stands out as being so in the current moment and I thought I would post it here. I was particularly struck by the number of deaths reported in a considerably smaller population than today and how, despite not even understanding at the time how plague was spread, bubonic plague did die out in this country, although I did hear a while ago that does still exist in certain surprising areas of the world.
Plague was a periodic hazard throughout the seventeenth century but London had been spared the epidemics of the 1650s and had not experienced a serious outbreak since 1636. There was a small outbreak in the autumn of 1664 but it did not cause alarm among the complacent population because the epidemic was expected to die out before the end of the winter. In the second week of February 1665 the Bills of Mortality recorded just a single death from plague in London. Two further deaths were recorded in the third week of April followed by nine in the week ending 9 May. The City authorities took action but this was all in the west of the City a long way from Wapping and unlikely to have concerned Thomas’ parents. But the actions of the authorities failed to stop the spread. The first plague deaths in Wapping and the nearby parishes of Stepney and Whitechapel occurred in early July. By the first week of August the number of deaths across the whole City had risen to more than four thousand. In the heat of summer, the plague really took hold.
All around Thomas’ neighbourhood, homes were closed up with red crosses painted on their doors. The family stayed in doors as much as possible. Nobody wanted contact with others and risk infection. Shut up inside his home to avoid contagion by others, Thomas heard the constant tolling of the passing bells and the drivers of carts crying out for people to bring out your dead.
Then, in the peak month of the plague during which 30,000 people died of it in London, what the family had all been dreading happened. Thomas senior contracted the plague. If he was fortunate, he may have dropped dead in the street without warning as happened to a few. More likely, he was shut up with his household in his house for at least forty days as the regulations demanded, dependant on others to deliver food to them. Food was left on their doorstep and, in return, they left the money for it in a dish of vinegar to destroy the contagion. The symptoms experienced were diverse but usually started with a fever. The course of the disease was always painful and accompanied by the swelling of the lymph glands called buboes and known at the time as the marks of the plague. Often, towards the end, gangrene set in turning fingers, toes and noses black as the tissue died.
Thomas senior died. By this stage of the epidemic, fear meant that bodies were no longer buried with respect. His was collected by the cart that came round each night collecting the dead and he was buried at Whitechapel on 10 September 1665. The following January his widow, Elizabeth, administered his estate. No further record of Joseph and young Elizabeth has been found and they were not mentioned in their grandmother’s Will. This last major outbreak of bubonic plague in England killed about a quarter of the population of London. Many plague deaths were not recorded. The two children may well have perished at this time leaving six year old Thomas alone with his mother.