Resting under an ancient yew tree in the graveyard of All Saints Church in Old Isleworth is a pit containing the bodies of 149 souls who died from the Bubonic Plague of 1665 -1666. In 18 months this epidemic killed an estimated 100,000 people – almost a quarter of London’s population. Unlike the current COVID-19 pandemic which is caused by a virus the Bubonic plague was down to the Yersinia Pestis bacterium, transmitted through the bite of infected rat fleas. Every year thousands of cases of the plague are still reported to the World Health Organization, although with proper antibiotic treatment, the prognosis for victims is now much better.
In 1665-1666 as the plague spread throughout London outer suburbs like Isleworth, Brentford and Hounslow were considered places of safety and refuge for wealthy and influential Londoners. As the diarist John Evelyn noted even the business of state was transferred to Syon House…
7th July 1665: To Sion where his Majesty sat at Council during the contagion: when business was over I viewed that seate belonging to the Earle of Northumberland, built out of an old Nunnerie of stone.
9th July 1665: I went to Hampton court, where now the whole court was, to solicite for money, to carry intercepted letters; to confer again with Sir William Conventrie, the Duke’s secretary ; and so home.
One problem with all this movement in and out of London was many of the visitors brought the plague with them…and left it here when they went home. Records suggest that by 1666 the parishes of Isleworth and Brentford were overrun with the disease. In Isleworth a cottage on the site of what is now the West Middlesex Hospital was turned into a ‘pest house’ to house the sufferers. Local historian G.E Bate said that “It was a primitive kind of isolation hospital, and few, if any, ever left it alive.” I suspect that most of the deceased whose names are now registered in the parish records finished up in the All Saints plague pit. There were other plague pits in the neighbourhood. Hounslow had a field at the junction of Inwood Road and Chapel Road known as “Plague Meadow” - now built upon - and Richmond has Pesthouse Common at the foot of Queen’s Road.
There were a number of alleged ‘cures’ or preventatives for the disease. For example all letters coming into this neighbourhood through Hounslow were ‘aired’ - or held over a bowl of hot vinegar to disinfect them. In 1665 the College of Physicians issued a directive that brimstone ‘burnt plentiful’ was recommended for a cure for the bad air that caused the plague. Those employed in the collection of bodies frequently smoked tobacco to avoid catching the plague. One scholar at Eton in the year that the great plague raged recalls all the boys smoked in school by order, and that he was never whipped so much in his life as he was one morning for not smoking. “For personal disinfections nothing enjoyed such favour as tobacco; the belief in it was widespread, and even children were made to light up a leaf in pipes.” It was said that no tobacconist in London ever caught the plague.
The wearing of lucky charms was also common - and recommended by doctors. Dr. George Thomson wore a dead toad around his neck. More particular people went for nosegays or posies of flowers and herbs or wore leather masks shaped like beaks. The Church recommended prayer and then more prayer. ‘Plague water’ was a popular cure, favoured by Samuel Pepys as was powered unicorn horn and frogs legs. What actually went into powered unicorn horn is not known. Putting the tail feathers of a live chicken onto buboes - the swollen lymphatic glands in armpit and groin - was supposed to drew out the poison allowing the patient to recover - so people were told. Despite the weirdness of these unlikely remedies some people did recover from the Bubonic Plague in the 1660s as patients today recover from COVID-19. Whether the future they faced then was as optimistic as the one we hope for today we’ll never know. Now go and wash your hands!
"When this is over, may we never again take for granted A handshake with a stranger Full shelves at the store Conversations with neighbors A crowded theater Friday night out The taste of communion A routine checkup The school rush each morning Coffee with a friend The stadium roaring Each deep breath A boring Tuesday Life itself. When this ends may we find that we have become more like the people we wanted to be we were called to be we hoped to be and may we stay that way -- better for each other because of the worst."
– LAURA KELLY FANUCCI - 2020
– from Martyn Day