St Bride's: History: Chapter V: 1665 - 1666

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St Bride's: History

Chapter I: Intro

Stepping into 2,000 years of history. The story of St Bride's is woven into the fabric of the City of London.
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Chapter II: AD43 - 1000

The dawn of our history: a Roman house near Lud Gate. Brigid: saintly teenager & default bishop
Photo Credit: Peter Dazeley
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Chapter III: 1000 - 1500

An accident of medieval geography brings importance
Photo Credit: Paul Freeman
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Chapter IV: 1500 - 1665

Wynkyn de Worde came to St Bride's and it was time to start the presses
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Chapter V: 1665 - 1666

Plague pits, nosegays, brokers of the dead & a torrent of flame.
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Chapter VI: 1666 - 1730

'Will you rebuild our church, Mr Wren?'
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Chapter VII: 1730 - 1940

The rise and rise of the Fourth Estate
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Chapter VIII: 1940 - 1957

The night St Bride's luck ran out
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Chapter IX: 1957 - 1989

Wynkyn de Worde's revolution ends in tears
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Chapter X: 1989 - 2021

St Bride's: a church for the 21st century
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Chapter V: 1665 - 1666

Plague pits, nosegays & brokers of the dead

Woodcut of the Great Plague

Woodcut of the Great Plague. 1. A searcher of the dead; 2. Dog-killers; 3 & 4. Exodus from London; 5. & 6. Bodies being taken for burial; 7. Mass burial in plague pits; 8. Mourners defy crowd prohibition; 9. Return of the rich

The Great Plague is believed to have first struck the docklands of London in April 1665, and by 6th June the parish of St Bride's was officially notified of an outbreak within its boundaries. It was also known as "the Poore's Plague," and the parish suffered terribly because of the large number of manual workers.

The court of Charles II, together with lawyers, merchants and doctors, fled the city, but the poor could not. St Bride's vicar, the Revd Richard Peirson, remained to witness the devastation to his parish community, including the deaths of his churchwardens.

Searchers of the Dead, usually old women, were paid to go out and inspect a corpse to determine cause of death. They were often bribed not to diagnose bubonic plague, as the entire household of a victim had to be locked in for 40 days, which normally resulted in all their deaths. Terrified residents sniffed nosegays to ward off malodorous airs which were thought to carry the infection. Funeral bells tolled constantly.

The parish distributed relief to stricken families. Watchmen were paid to guard locked houses and attend to the wants of those within. Nurses were dispatched to attend the sick. Two "bearers" were paid to carry corpses to the plague pits. The cost of all of this was partly reclaimed by the "brokers of the dead" who seized the property left in infected houses. So much was gathered that St Bride's had to rent a storehouse.

Many thousands of dogs and cats were culled, as they were believed to spread the pestilence. Flea-infested rats (the real culprits) were thus freed of predators, and proliferated.

In all the plague cost the parish of St Bride's some £581. The human cost was far worse: 2,111 people died in the parish in that fateful year. London lost 100,000, or 20% of its inhabitants.

Plague victims continued to die in smaller numbers until autumn the following year - which proved to be the very moment the City was consumed, literally, by a second dreadful tribulation on the heels of the first.

A torrent of flame rushing down Ludgate Hill

After a summer of drought, the Great Fire of London began on Sunday 2nd September 1666, and very soon the worried residents of the parish were watching in growing alarm before being put to flight two days later as the advancing flames leapt the narrow alleyways to ignite wooden houses and the often-illegal businesses many of them contained.

Period fire engine

St Bride's was equipped with its own fire engine, but had failed to keep the machine "scoured, oyled and trimmed." Soldiers destroyed houses about Fleet Bridge in the vain hope that the Fleet River might stay the advance of the flames. But the relentless east wind drove the fire on: one onlooker described how it "rushed like a torrent down Ludgate Hill."

On Friday, Samuel Pepys made this entry in his diary:

September 7. - Up by five o'clock; and blessed be God!, find all well; and by water to Paul's Wharfe. Walked thence, and saw all the towne burned; and a miserable sight of Paul's church, with all the roof fallen, and the body of the quire fallen into St Fayth's; Paul's School also, Ludgate and Fleete-street, my father's house (in Salisbury Court) and the church (St Bride's), and a good part of the Temple the like.

Great Fire of London

Detail of the Great Fire of London by an unknown painter, depicting the fire as it would have appeared on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf. St Paul's Cathedral in the distance, surrounded by the tallest flames.

Two weeks before the conflagration, a new vicar had been inducted at St Bride's. The hapless Paul Boston was to possess a church for no longer than those two weeks of his tenure, though in his will he left it £50; the silver gilt vessels bought with that bequest remain prized possessions today.

The destruction of the medieval St Bride's was so complete that no attempt was made to use the ruins for service, as was done at St Paul's and elsewhere. So, the big question was: would St Bride's be rebuilt?