How the days of the plague struck Milton Keynes

Posted 22nd February 2024

‘Bring out your dead’ was the chilling call Sammy Jones takes a look at the dark days of the plague and how it struck hard in this area…

The Covid pandemic was traumatic, divisive and incredibly difficult to navigate, and that was despite all of the modern day tools at our disposal, and the supposed ease of information dissemination.

But with no quick means of sharing information, no real understanding of how it was spread, and a one in three prognosis of death, the plagues which devastated communities centuries ago would have been utterly terrifying.

Being bled with leeches was a common treatment, but certainly didn’t help symptoms, and while children were encouraged to smoke to keep the sickness at bay, as we now know, that only creates its own issues.

1666 wasn’t only a stand-out year in the history books for the Great Fire of London. It was also the time of the most catastrophic plague in the capital for more than three hundred years; not since the Black Death of 1348 had such devastation been felt.

Like so many of our own ills, this episode of the bubonic plague – which began in 1665 – didn’t discriminate. The lymph nodes in the armpits, groin and neck were attacked, with buboes, or swellings, quickly presenting themselves. Headaches, fever and vomiting would also affect the afflicted.

The statistics made for scary reading; sufferers had a 30% chance of dying in just two weeks. When someone was infected, whole families were locked in the home together, which was marked with a red cross to make everyone aware that illness had arrived. It was an attempt to prevent the disease spreading further, but was a death sentence for the entire family as person to person transmission was a breeze and they were left to perish.

Under the cover of darkness, the cry of ‘Bring out your dead’ was the call, and corpses were loaded onto carts for disposal in so-called plague pits.

There was panic on the streets of London, and those who could, fled to what they presumed were safer areas – King Charles II left for Oxford, accompanied by his courtiers, and many doctors, merchants and lawyers also deserted the sick city, leaving the poorest in situ to take their chances.

Town Councillors stayed too, to enforce orders, while watchmen locked and kept watch over infected houses. Just as they did during our own pandemic, parish officials distributed food and provided aid.

All trade with infected towns ceased, and business with other countries was paused, which in turn led to mass job losses. At its height, in one week in London more than 31,000 lost their lives.

People believed the plague was spread by felines and canines and the slaughter of dogs and cats was ordered by the Lord Mayor of London. It has been estimated that 40,000 dogs and a staggering 200,000 cats were slaughtered under orders.

With their foes being eliminated, rats – who hosted the plague carrying fleas – thrived. They were helped further by very low levels of personal hygiene and cleanliness, open sewers and filthy rivers, and houses which were made of wood and easy to traverse.

In a futile bid to wipe out the plague, bonfires burned in the streets to purify the air, which of course made no impact.
Inevitably, the plague came to these parts. A report from August 1666 said that only several hundred people, approximately half of the town’s population, were left in Newport Pagnell.

Initially children had fared particularly badly, but from thereafter adults bore the brunt, with more female losses than men.
Burials had risen from an average of 37 in 1665 to 697 in 1666.

That July, as temperatures increased, so too did losses, 257 deaths were registered, with the victims believed to be laid to rest on Bury Field.
With no time to prepare coffins (indeed many of those makers were probably lost to the indiscriminate disease too), and keen to prevent further spread, the deceased would have been buried in simple shrouds, and with little ceremony.

Even after the plague was in remission, recovery in the town which had been ravaged by the disease would have been slow, with a community left stricken, reduced in number and with families devastated by the loss of many loved ones.

Newport Pagnell had been an important thoroughfare and a place for travellers and traders to rest for centuries – In 1204 King John had visited, followed in 1224 by Henry III. But its importance as a bustling town and place of many inns would have contributed to its troubles.
While the memories of those people whose footsteps we now walk in have long since been forgotten in the passing of time, they do remain in the pages of the Parish Registers.

There are other quiet remnants of those dark days to be found. Frederick Bull wrote in his page-turner A History of Newport Pagnell, ‘on a cracked freestone under the lowest window on the North Side of the North Chapel of Great Linford Church is an inscription commencing with a Greek phrase as to the mortality of mankind and continuing: ‘Here lyeth the Bodies of Richard and Martha Peter, who as they were here joyned in Marriage, Anno 1636, so it pleased God to lay them together in this bed of Mould, Anno 1666, both dying in this parish, She on the 14, He on the 16 of Sept; being removed from Newport by Reason of a Raging Plague.’

It would have been a subdued Newport Pagnell that welcomed the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, on Monday, July 8, 1666, who visited on a journey from London via Bedford.

He spent the night at The Swan Hotel and recorded of his stay, ‘At night to Newport Pagnell, and there a good pleasant country-town, but few people in it. A very fair and a like cathedral church; and I saw the leads, and a vault that goes far underground; the town, and so most of this country, well watered.’

Willen, Great Woolstone, Little Woolstone and Bow Brickhill all escaped the ravages, seeing as how they were all located away from main roads.

Conversely, Shenley and Wavendon didn’t escape unscathed, and Bletchley, which at that time included Fenny Stratford on Watling Street, saw an average annual increase in deaths from 20 to 126.

The ancient town of Fenny Stratford had hosted a weekly market for many years, but the main Chester to London route that had run through the town was rerouted as a result of the plague, and the market ceased.

The plague devastated families, ruined livelihoods and caused distrust, panic and fear. As we now know from our own experiences in recent years, recovery would be a slow process.

History of Newport Pagnell by F.W. Bull

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