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Early Modern European lives: Life during the plague and Great Fire of London

Updated Tuesday, 5th May 2015

The Great Fire of London and the Great Plague shook London during the 1660s - find out more about how it changed people's lives in this article. 

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Living in London during the 1660s was particularly hard-going. Besides the high rates of infant deaths, poor sanitary conditions and high numbers of destitute people, there were two major disasters: the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. But what happened to the people living in London during this time?

The Great Plague of 1665

The plague in 1665 - painting depicting collecting the dead for burial Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Public domain The Great Plague started in 1665 and by September of that year took the lives of 100,000 people in London (that's one-fifth of the population). Many people fled England's capital to avoid contamination and would not return until December of that year. 

While nobody knows for certain exactly what the plague is, it is widely believed by experts that the plague that encompassed London in 1665 was the bubonic plague, a disease carried by rats and passed on by their fleas to humans once the rats had died. Once humans had contracted the plague many would experience: vomiting, headaches, fever, buboes (painful swellings) on the neck, armpits and groin, blisters and coughing up blood. Over two-thirds of people who caught the plague would die within a week. Between 1-3 people in infected families would die; in extreme cases sometimes the plague would prove fatal to an entire family. 

Life in London changed drastically during the plague; not only did people leave the city but those who stayed could no longer go to the theatre or attend sporting games (due to fear of the disease spreading). People's businesses suffered extreme losses and many people had to resort to begging or stealing food. 

The population was horrified; many people wouldn't go near infected family members to help them or they threw servants out on the street if they started to show signs of the plague. Samuel Pepys commented in his diary how the plague made everyone 'cruel as dogs to one another'.

The last case of the plague reported was in 1679. 

The Great Fire of London 1666

Great Fire of London painting depicting the fire as it would have appeared on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September 1666 from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf. The Tower of London is on the right and London Bridge on the left, with St Paul's Cathedral in the distance, surrounded by the tallest flames. Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Public domain Painting by an unknown artist depicting the fire engulfing St Paul's Cathedral The Great Fire of London began on 2nd September 1666 and lasted for just under five days. The effect on people's lives in the city was shattering with over 100,000 people being made homeless and one-third of London's houses and architecture obliterated. 

The fire started at 1am in Thomas Farriner's bakery on Pudding Lane - it is believed a spark from the oven fell on some fuel. A combination of the fact that summer that year had been very hot and dry, Pudding Lane was surrounded by warehouses containing flammable products and a strong easterly wind blew the fire down the narrow streets made conditions ideal for the fire to spread.

Due to the rapid nature of the fire, many people escaped London rather than fight the flames. Many fled to the river or to the fields outside of the city - some would remain here for months sleeping in tents as their homes had been destroyed. 

The Londoners that stayed in the capital to put out the fire were helped by soldiers (there was no fire brigade in those days). They used a combination of water, water squirts and fire hooks to do this. They attempted to pull down houses with the fire hooks to stop the fire from spreading; but this was to little avail since the fire was so rapid. During the final day of the fire the fire-fighters used gun powder to blow up the houses instead. On Tuesday night the wind dropped and early on Thursday morning the fire was out completely.

While fewer than ten people died during the fire, many people were homeless. Only 9,000 houses were rebuilt and St Paul's Cathedral was ruined - it wasn't fully restored until 1711. It took 50 years to rebuild the whole of the burnt area again. New building regulations came in to place after the disaster to prevent a fire from spreading so quickly again: houses had to be faced in brick instead of wood and streets were widened. 

As insurance did not exist back then, a number of people lost their possessions in the blaze and would never receive compensation. However, a rare few such as Richard Royston, a bookseller to King Charles II , was given a substantial sum of £300 by the king in compassion for the losses suffered in the fire. 

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