The Great Plague of London, which happened from 1665 to 1666, was considered the last epidemic of Bubonic plague in England. It killed an estimated 100,000 people, about a quarter of London’s population.
London has been hit by the plague before. During the Black Death that swept through Asia and Europe from 1346 to 1351, the Bubonic Plague also reached London in 1348. However, the Great Plague of London was on a smaller scale.
Like in the Black Death, Bubonic plague was caused by the Yersinia Pestis bacteria in the intestines of fleas. The bacteria was transmitted to humans after fleas bit them.
The plague was passed on to other humans if they touched the infected tissue of someone with the plague or breathed in their cough.
This epidemic was blamed on rats from the Netherlands which had been experiencing the plague on and off since 1599. The rats supposedly reached London on Dutch trading ships from Amsterdam.
London in 1665 was a crowded city. In all it was around 448 acres all surrounded by a city wall. In the poorer parts of the city buildings were built so close to each other it was crowded.
Maintaining hygiene was a problem. Raw sewage flowed in the streets, animal dung was everywhere, and garbage was a problem.
The poor sanitary conditions and availability of food allowed the rats from Amsterdam to breed into colonies. Their fleas began to spread to humans.
At first only a few people caught the plague, but it began to spread quickly because the city was so crowded. Authorities had to impose quarantine on houses with inhabitants who had the plague.
Even up to this time people still didn’t know the plague was transmitted by fleas. They still blamed it on unusual weather, sickness in livestock, bad air, and other phenomena.
Although it was called the Great Plague of London it also spread outside London.
People lit bonfires in parts of the city, believing the fire would drive the bad air away. Doctors recommended smoking tobacco. Authorities also quarantined houses with infected individuals.
The house would have its door marked with a red cross and the words “Lord have mercy upon us”. A watchman was assigned to make sure no one got in or out of the house.
In 1666 a law was passed to rebuild parts of London. Streets were widened, open sewers banned, and more hygiene standards were implemented.