The Great Plague – Channel 5


Just in case we hadn’t heard enough about pandemics this year, Channel 5 decided to present us with a three-part series about bubonic plague – presented not by a historian but by a medic, an archaeologist and John Sergeant.  John, instead of dancing badly, submitted to having spots and buboes painted on his face: I think even Lucy Worsley might have drawn the line at that.

Seriously, it was very interesting – although it didn’t half go on about fleas and lice.  Their theory was that the plague was spread not by fleas from rats but from human parasites which hang around on clothes.  They did present some very convincing arguments in support of that, and it would certainly explain why the plague died down in the colder months, and how it was carried to Eyam in a parcel of patterns, but I was more after the social history than the bugs.  Most of what was said about the 17th century was familiar, but the outbreaks in early 20th century Britain are less well-known.  It spread round Glasgow after one person died of the plague, hundreds of people came to the wake, and then the deceased’s possessions were given away to friends and relatives.  Frightening.

It’s always inspiring to hear about the courage and tragedy of Eyam, which formed much of the third episode.  It’s certainly not inspiring to hear about how rich Londoners, even doctors, took off as fast as their carriages would carry them, carrying the plague across the country and leaving the poor to die – although many brave nurses stayed behind, doing what they could.   For those left behind, as the presenters kept pointing out, their main weapons against the plague, other than limewashing and fumigation, and putting coins in vinegar – which were actually pretty effective – were what would now be called social distancing and self-isolation.

No, nobody had to yell “Unclean, unclean”.  That was leprosy, not the plague.  And, apparently, those masks with long noses weren’t used in England.  It didn’t actually mention pomander balls.  It did mention closing theatres.  And sending your servants out to do the shopping – although obviously that wasn’t much use if you didn’t have servants.  And it wasn’t really great for the poor servants.   But it did show that people were aware of the need to try to avoid contact – not easy when things were so bad that there were bodies of plague victims lying in the street.  The Lord Mayor of London, who was left to try to cope with things after the court decamped, stood on some sort of balcony, so that no-one could get too close to him.  People came to see him to ask for health certificates, so that, if they were able to leave, they’d find it easier to get lodgings.

And the plague crosses on houses.  When the coronavirus pandemic started, there were a few gallows humour jokes about plague crosses flying around, but the thought of houses actually being nailed up, with healthy members of the household left in there to die along with the sick, really is horrible.

And, even with measures like that, the death rates were horrific.  There’s the old rhyme, isn’t there?  “In sixteen hundred and sixty five, there was hardly anyone left alive.  In sixteen hundred and sixty six, London burned like rotten sticks.”  Incidentally, the presenters reckoned that the Great Fire didn’t really have much to do with the end of the plague outbreak, and that it was ending naturally anyway.  “There was hardly anyone left alive” is obviously rather an exaggeration, but so many thousands of people died.  Tragic stories of two women, one in London and one in Eyam, who both lost their husbands and all their children.  Bodies being thrown into mass graves.  It was nothing that viewers won’t have heard a million times before, but it was still so, so sad.

The conclusion, other than all the stuff about lice and fleas, was that there have always been pandemics.  OK, that was stating the obvious, but it was probably something about which we did need to be reminded – because I think we’d all got complacent, and we thought that modern science would prevent anything like the situation in which we find ourselves in 2020 from ever happening again, outside the pages of dystopian novels.

And, one day, this will be over, but we’re always going to be The Covid Generations, and we’re always going to look at things through the prism of what happened in 2020 (and, let’s face it, at least part of 2021 as well).  How weird is that?  Just as my grandmas and great-aunts always hoarded food because they never quite got past rationing, and kept scraps of cardboard and bits of string, I’m probably always going to carry a bottle of hand sanitiser around with me, and maybe I’ll always step into the road if I see someone coming the other way along a narrow pavement.  I’ll certainly never read a book, or watch a programme, about the Great Plague, the Black Death or any other pandemic in the same light again.


4 thoughts on “The Great Plague – Channel 5

  1. mrsredboots

    I expect we’ll go on wearing masks in shops long after we really need to, too – look at Korea and Japan post-SARS! They were wearing masks all the time long before Covid-19. I always have carried hand sanitiser, but I get through it a lot faster now! There are some extremely nice ones out there….

    Liked by 1 person

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