The records of the westerly suburban parish of St Dunstan in the West are detailed and broadly illustrative of the response of suburban parishes to the 1665 plague epidemic. Although not one of London’s suburban giants, St Dunstan reflects the shifting topography of plague from the centre to the suburbs through the period. In 1593, the parish reported 585 burials, 363 of plague and 860, 363 of plague in 1625. The scale of mortality in 1665 was little different to that of 1625 with a total of 958 burials reported, 665 of plague. Mortality was elevated around four times above normal levels in 1665 and accommodation required for some seven hundred additional burials. This falls short of the elevations that most suburban parishes experienced during that particular epidemic but even so, the parish was under immense pressure and given it was not overwhelmed and the parish records maintained, provides a fascinating view of the experience and chronology of plague beyond the walls.
The parish population grew from some 1,000 souls in 1548 to 2,500 by the beginning of the Restoration period, although most of that growth was essentially achieved by the early seventeenth century. The Agas Map (1562) shows the parish’s location on Fleet Street, ribbon development along Fetter Lane and relative open space in the northern area of the parish. Although the parish population had not increased to the extent of other suburban parishes, the Faithorne map (1658) reflects the density of the built environment by the middle of the seventeenth century.
In his excellent study of epidemics and the built environment, Justin Champion referred to the outward projection of a ‘thriving, successful’ and ‘affluent’ parish at St Dunstan, one of London’s wealthiest, where the occupational structure was dominated by the victualling trade. A mean number of seven hearths per dwelling was returned in the 1666 Hearth Tax. Champion placed the parish in the context of the ‘classic social topography’ of early modern urban centres, whereby behind the prosperous locations of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane a ‘labyrinth’ of ‘congested’ courts, alleys and yards emerged and it was here that he argued that mortality followed ‘social structure’, with an imbalance toward ‘smaller and poorer’ dwellings, at St Dunstan in the West in 1665. The vestry minutes and churchwardens’ accounts can be used to tease out the chronology and spatial incidence of plague at St Dunstan in 1665.
The first reference to plague in the churchwardens’ accounts in 1665 is on 27 June with money distributed to the ‘poore and visited’. Two days later the vestry elected to ‘shutt upp’ the ‘howse’ of the parish ‘Graue maker’ William Penny who was visited by the sicknes’. Penny had possession of the ‘parish Gallery in the church’ and the vestry ordered that he ‘bee forthwith discharged from both said places’ and that ‘Abraham Pate shall bee keeper of the said Gallery and Joseph Penny his sonn Graue maker’. Money was disbursed to the pesthouse for the ‘maintenance of such poore people as shall (being visited with the sicknes) be sent hither’. It was reiterated that as ‘afore for all such as shall be shutt upp of the sicknes in the parish, which and as often as occasion shall require’. Finally, watchmen there appointed to wait upon ‘all such howses that shal be visited within the Parish’ and provision was made for ‘such an allowance for their pains as shall be thought fitt’.
On 30 June the churchwardens distributed ‘more to the poore & visited’, and ‘Laid out for a bedstead for the two watchmen’ attending ‘two visited howses in Cock and Key alley’. The records give a sense of the vestry taking charge and implementing orders with confidence and anticipation of the pressures to come. In the face of rising mortality they found time to discuss ordinary business, a payment to Mr Bates the ‘Carpinter’, and action an inventory, including one of the wardens being asked to bring in the church plate. By 3 July though all vestry business related to plague. Problems were dealt with as they arose and within the confines of plague directives. Widow Briggs, ‘one of the searchers’ of the parish’, was ordered to ‘cohabit and dwell with widow Mason the other searcher in churchyard alley’, the vestry keen to isolate those in contact with plague dead and infected houses. The women were to be paid ‘two shillings a peece weekely’.
The role of charity in supplementing parish relief is apparent with a ‘guift of Sr John Cole to the poore visited people of this Parish’. Mr Dorsett, the senior Churchwarden, was to see the money ‘disbursed accordingly’. Cole may well have fled, as many of status and means did, but charity was often ensured in their absence. The careful monitoring and expected stress on finances is evident in the order that a ‘Record bee kept by the churchwardens’ of ‘money as is or shouldbe laid out and disbursed’ for the ‘infected poore of this parish’. Moreover, the external view of the parish as an administrative unit is illustrated by a vestry order on 7 July, whereby a note was to be read in ‘church on the next lords day’ announcing a mayoral order restricting ‘All publique assemblyes’ at burials, especially in ‘those parishes that are infected with the sicknes’. This initiative was resented and opposed by Londoners who sought comfort in tradition and continuity, particularly attuned to any denigration of burial custom.
Account expenditure from mid-July shows the range of plague spending. One Mr Drinkwater was paid ‘for Phisick given to poore persons shutt upp of the sicknes’ on 17 July and sums were ‘Laid out about the sending of Goodman Short to the Pesthouse’ on 19 July. The quarantined were the greatest expense for the parish. Widow Aldworth, ‘she being visited with the sicknes’ ‘and William Penny’s family ‘being visited with the sicknes’ were given financial relief, whilst sums were also paid ‘to a nurse to looke to Penny and his family’. The expense of watchers and nurses for the visited increased through July as plague spread through the alleys and courts. For example, money was distributed on 22 July to Copper and Dudley, ‘the watchman being sicke’ and ‘widow Aldworth being visited with the sicknes’. Payment was disbursed to the constable Thomas Langrish ‘for a moneths pay to the watchmen’ and the ‘visited howses’ and the ‘Bearers of St Brydes P[ar]ish for laying out of Goodman Shorte’, 26 and 27 July respectively. William Penny was also paid for ‘making three graues’, apparently surviving the shutting up of his house in June. Payments were made to ‘Cooper the watchman’ in Crowne Court’ for ‘7 days watching’ and to ‘two nurses in Crown Court’.
The movement and spread of plague through the parish can be discerned, although it should be noted that the accounts focused on houses actively supported by the parish and will be biased toward the poorer quarters. Quarantined houses were supported in Cock and Key and Rams Alleys from late June, two locations referenced in the accounts throughout the visitation. Isolated houses in Crown Court were receiving parish relief by the end of July, and Fetter Lane, with ‘sixe howses’ watched, by mid to late August, as too were several houses in Chancery Lane at the beginning of September where the Painter family were given parish funds. Support was directed to widow Hollythorne in Pinkes Alley on 9 September, Mr Sherrow in Hollythorne Court on the 14th, Mrs Symonds in Boreshead Alley on the 22nd, and widow Legatt in Jerusalem Court on the 26th. Justin Champion concluded that the ‘standard of environmental living’, as reflected in the ‘physical space inhabited, determined the type of mortality experienced’. Kira Newman pushed back on this to a degree in her nuanced study of quarantine at St Martin in the Fields in 1636, where she found the greater share of shut up houses to be located on the major thoroughfares of the parish.
Accommodating plague dead was one of the biggest challenges faced by parishes. Ordinary burial practice was adhered to as long as possible, and only when inadequate, would the more extreme measure of common burial be initiated. St Dunstan was coping well enough through the earlier stages of the epidemic, but by mid-August, the vestry was forced to revise burial policy. On 16 August labourers were paid ‘for 4 days and a halfe for digging of 3 Pitts for buryall of the deceased visited people’, and ‘more to 4 labourers for twoe dayes digging of a pitt’. Vanessa Harding posited the digging of pits was a practical measure to accommodate vastly raised numbers of dead but was also likely aimed at saving money. The majority of families could not pay for burial, whilst the parish was carrying the financial burden of the epidemic. The first pits appear to have been inadequate, as on 1 September two men were paid for ‘helping to dig 2 pits’. Increasing mortality is evident in the purchase of planks to ‘cover the pitts’ on 4 September, indicative of the need to keep the ground open. More was paid to ‘men for helping to make pitts’ on 18 September, the bearers bringing in 14 corpses alone the following day. On 2 October, ‘twoe labourers’ were paid for ‘carrying away of eight loades of rubbish out of the church yarde next the church’, and on 2 November a final pitt was dug. As the epidemic subsided, a ‘carter & sixe labourers’ were paid for ‘bringing in and carrying out of eleven loades of earth and rubbish at the churchyard’.
The records of St Dunstan in the West provide an interesting window on the plethora of challenges suburban parishes faced in 1665, the framework of response implemented and the pragmatic manner in which they set about their responsibilities.
By Aaron Columbus
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