Plague in Hinckley 1666

The Great Plague had arrived in Britain

the great plague 1665 by rita greer
The Great Plague 1665 by Rita Greer

12th February 1665 Panic began when a man died unexpectedly in a house at Dury Lane in London, his cause of death was the Bubonic Plague. Over the next couple of years, the Plague would wipe out entire families decimate communities in towns all over the country and would become known as the ‘Great Plague’.

The Plague arrived on rat-infested ships from Europe, the Plague was caused by bacteria the was transmitted through the bite of infected rat fleas. The black rats would live in open drains on the streets and run along alleyways of cobblestones that at the time could be thick with sewage and dung.

All dogs and cats were destroyed as a preventive measure, but unknowingly at the time this action allowed the rats to flourish and spread the disease. After sunset carts were driven through the streets to collect the dead, where they were taken to the nearest graveyard to be buried in plague pits. Fires burned to make smoke, pipes of tobacco were smoked, posies of herbs worn and faces covered with masks, which was thought to be protection against contagion.

The victims would have had agonising boils and abscesses, pustules on their legs and under their armpits and some would also complain of a pain in the head.

Houses containing the victims were boarded up, condemning the rest of the inhabitants to almost-certain death. There was little medical treatment for the Plague.

Plague reached Hinckley

In 1666 Hinckley like other towns in the country would also suffer from the Plague, causing 143 deaths.

Below is an extract from ‘The History and Antiquities of Hinckley’ written by John Nichols in 1782, he gives an account of Hinckley during the time of the Plague.

The sickness is said to have been brought to this town in the following manner. An inhabitant of Hinckley had a near relation in London, whose daughter died of the plague. After her death they sent a fine coat-body as a present to their friends at Hinckley, who had a daughter about the same age. When they had received it, being fearful of the infection, and yet pleased with the present, they concluded to give it a through airing, which was attended to during all the winter season, and sometimes outdoors.

After this precaution, thinking it quite safe and free from infection, they ventured to put it upon their daughter, who soon sickened and died. After this, it spread in the town, but by the extreme care and caution of the inhabitants, it was not as fatal as might have been expected.

They had a hospital for the sick at the bottom or further part of the Astwoods. Most people (as is generally the case in such calamity) kept as much to themselves as possible. As an instance of this, upon the ceasing of the sickness, they found the pavement of the streets overgrown with grass.

Some of the inhabitants retired to their friends in the villages free from infection. An ancestor of mine, whose wife has near relations at Stoney Stanton, retired thither, on the approach of the sickness, with the young family, the husband remaining at home; but on the increase and near approach of the sickness, he thought it prudent to go to a solitary building on his own land at a distance from society, leaving his house and business to the care of a trusty servant, who frequently visited him, bringing him what necessaries he wanted, and giving him information of the progress of the sickness.

From his dreary retreat he walked every morning to Mill Pit, about a post-mile from Hinckley, for it was customary about ten o’clock to give as many tolls on the great bell as there were persons dead for the Plague. Here he continued till the town was free from infection.

I think it is worth notice, that during the sickness there often was a very great calm, the bell being general heard very distinct at Mill Pit, also at Stoney Stanton, very frequently at this last place they could hear the church clock strike the hour.

In the extract above, it mentioned that Mill Pit is said to be a ‘post-mile’ from Hinckley. A mill (windmill) stood had been in this area until about 1610, the Mill Pit was in the middle of mill field, which today Middlefield Lane is believed to be a corruption of Mill Field Lane.

Also in the extract, Astwoods was mentioned at the location of the Plague hospital. It is believed that Astwoods means Eastwards, and that the site of the Plague hospital would be east of London Road beyond the railway lines. There is a possibility that the victims of the Plague of both Hinckley and Burbage could be buried in pits around this area.

Plague Doctor

The Plague Doctor

Known as Municipal or a Community Plague Doctor they would have treated those who had the Plague.

Some of the Doctors wore a protective suit, which consisted of a heavy fabric overcoat that was waxed and went down to the ankles, gloves, boots, a mask with glass eye openings and a cone nose shaped like a beak to hold scented substances and straw and a brim hat.

Some of the scented materials were ambergris, lemon Balm, mint leaves, camphor, cloves, laudanum, myrrh, rose petals, storax. The straw provided a filter for the bad air which was seen at the time as the cause of infection.

They would also have a wooden cane pointer which was used to help examine the patient without having to touch them. The cane was also used as a way of repenting sins, as the other belief was that the plague was a punishment and would ask to be whipped to repent their sins.

Plague doctors generally could not interact with the general public unless they had the Plague due to the possibility of spreading the disease, they could also be subject to quarantine.

The Plague Doctor costumes, rather than being reassuring, have become a frightening symbol of death.

Nursery Rhyme

kate greenaways illustration showing children playing the game
Kate Greenaway's illustration from Mother Goose of the Old Nursery Rhymes (1881), showing children playing the game

It is often suggested that the rhyme relates to the symptoms of the Great Plague. The rhyme first appeared in print in Kate Greenaway's ‘Mother Goose’ which was published in 1881, but it is reported that a version was already being sung to the current tune in the 1790s.

Is this Ring-a-ring o’roses nursery rhyme about the Plague? You decide.

The meaning that is thought to be behind the rhyme

Ring-a-ring o’roses - The ring means the sores around the mouths, a rosy rash, was a symptom of the Plague.

A pocket full of posies - Posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease.

A-tishoo! A-tishoo! - Sneezing of coughing was a final fatal symptom.

We all fall down - is another way of saying death.

The physician and the plague

Physician Robert Merivel (Robert Downey, Jr.), a former student of William Harvey, has to face the Great Plague of London of 1665-1666. This short film of 9 minutes gives some interesting insights about medicine during the time of the plague.

From the film 'Restoration' (1995) by Michael Hoffman.

Is there a cure for the bubonic plague today?

Mortality associated with treated cases of bubonic plague is about 1–15%, compared to a mortality of 40–60% in untreated cases. People potentially infected with the plague need immediate treatment and should be given antibiotics within 24 hours of the first symptoms to prevent death.