< All Articles

Lessons from Samuel Pepys's Plague diary: Living through an outbreak

Samuel Pepys, Britain's most famous diarist lived through a tumultuous period of British history. As a young man, the navy administrator who rose through the ranks to become Chief Secretary to the Admiralty witnessed the execution of Charles I, lived through the interregnum and the period of instability following Cromwell’s death. For almost a decade between 1660 to 1669, Pepys kept his diary, giving a first-hand account of the coronation of King Charles II and the restoration of the British monarchy, the Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague of London, followed by the Great Fire of London.
 
With its parallels with the coronavirus outbreak, Pepys’s account of the Great Plague of London which lasted from 1665 - 1666 is absolutely fascinating for modern readers. It is also rather comforting to see how he dealt with a situation far worse than the one we currently face, with such a positive outlook. Indeed, the outbreak coincided with a time of prosperity and success for Pepys, showing however bad things may seem, life goes on.
 
‘In this sad time of the plague every thing else has conspired to my happiness and pleasure more for these last three months than in all my, life before in so little time. God long preserve it and make me thankful for it.’ 24 September 1665.

Social distancing 17th century style

The Plague reached London in June 1665 with Pepys writing: ‘to my great trouble, hear that the plague is come into the City.’ Though there was no lockdown in place in London, as today, people did stay away from being in public. Pepys describing the shock of seeing once busy streets deserted, a feeling we can all relate to:

‘But, Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the 'Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.’ 16 August 1665.

Travel disruption

Pepys, a civil servant remained in London throughout the Great Plague, a sort of Restoration key worker. Until the mid-18th century, London Bridge was the only Thames bridge below Kingston upon Thames. If you wanted to cross it or travel up the banks you needed to take a small boat piloted by a 'waterman'. And like all aspects of daily life in London in 1665, this too was disrupted.
 
‘After to my inn, and eat and drank, and so about seven o'clock by water, and got between nine and ten to Queenhive, very dark. And I could not get my waterman to go elsewhere for fear of the plague.’  22 August 1665.

Travelling through an outbreak posed a risk for Pepys but it was more dangerous for the watermen, as Pepys notes in the same entry. Sadly today, over two dozen TFL workers have died from coronavirus in the capital.

‘Walked home; being forced thereto by one of my watermen falling sick yesterday, and it was God's great mercy I did not go by water with them yesterday, for he fell sick on Saturday night, and it is to be feared of the plague.’

Bring out your dead

During the plague outbreak, Pepys often comes across bodies in the street, to the extent it becomes almost a commonplace experience in his diary:
 
'And an odd story of Alderman Bence's stumbling at night over a dead corps in the streete, and going home and telling his wife, she at the fright, being with child, fell sicke and died of the plague.’ 10 August 1665.
 

In relates one shocking incident in Greenwich where he saw an open coffin lying in the street.
 
‘I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead body therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night, and the parish have not appointed any body to bury it; but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing: this disease making us more cruel to one another than if we are dogs.’ 4 September 1665.

Even though the coronavirus has affected how we pay our respects to the dead with social distancing at funerals with a reduction in the number of mourners, we can be thankful that we will never have to return to the situation of Pepys's day where the dead were so callously treated.

Everyone's an expert

The one thing that the COVID-19 outbreak has revealed is that there are a lot of armchair epidemiologists out there with their own views on how the virus is spread. Initially, President Trump claimed that as the temperature rises, the virus will miraculously disappear. Pepys also, believed temperature played an important role in the transmission of the Plague which is spread by fleas carrying the plague bacillus in their stomachs:

‘The plague is encreased again this week, notwithstanding there hath been a day or two great frosts; but we hope it is only the effects of the late close warm weather, and if the frosts continue the next week, may fall again.' 13 December 1665.

Fake News

Today people blame 5G for causing COVID-19, in Pepys's, they blamed the spread on wigs that used hair from plague victims

'Up; and put on my coloured silk suit very fine, and my new periwigg, bought a good while since, but durst not wear, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done, as to periwiggs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off of the heads of people dead of the plague.' 3 September 1665.

Life goes on

As we approach four weeks of lockdown in the UK, the most heartening part of Pepys’s diary is seeing the resilience of people. After losing 25% of London’s population, things begin to go back to normal in the capital:
 
‘To our great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to be open again. Pray God continue the plague's decrease! for that keeps the Court away from the place of business, and so all goes to rack as to publick matters, they at this distance not thinking of it.’ 31 December 1665

 

In a diary full of wonderful anecdotes and fascinating contemporary detail, it is perhaps this part that offers the greatest lesson to modern readers.