Tuesday, 7 June 2011

On This Day ... Samuel Pepys & The Great Plague

Samuel Pepys, the noted 17th century diarist, is perhaps most famous for his eyewitness accounts of the The Great Fire which swept through London in 1666.  But this was far from the only significant event recorded by him during this tumultuous period in the city's history. 

Although he kept a diary for only nine years (from 1660 to 1669, when he was forced to abandon it due to blindness), Pepys' writings have become an invalubale source of information for historians.  Aside from his accounts of the devastating Great Fire, his diaries have also provided commentaries on the Restoration, the Second Anglo-Dutch War and, of course, the Great Plague.

It was on this day, June 7th, in 1665, when Pepys made one of his first references to this terrible disease, which would go on the wreak havoc on the beleagured city.  He wrote:
“This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a read cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord Have Mercy Upon Us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind . . . that I ever saw."
As the summer wore on, his accounts became ever more harrowing.  On August 12th, he wrote:
“The people die so, that it now seems they are willing to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not being long enough to do it."
Pepys continued to chronicle the progress of the plague and, as his diary entry for August 22nd suggests, in their efforts to deal with the burgeoning number of dead bodies, the authorities had not the time nor the resources to bestow on the deceased any dignity in death.
“I went on a walk to Greenwich, on my way seeing a coffin with a dead body in it, dead of plague. It lay in an open yard . . . It was carried there last night, and the parish has not told anybody to bury it. This disease makes us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs.”
Pepys' motivation for keeping such detailed records of these traumatic events is unclear.  He certainly didn't write them for posterity; having written most of his entries in code, it is clear he never intended them to be published.  One wonders what he would have made of the fact that, over 400 years later, his scribblings are regarded by many to be the definitive authority on one of the most turbulent decades in London's long and varied history.

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