In a crisis like the plague it is vital to get a handle on what is happening. The counting of deaths was one thing the Mayor’s Court was very keen on. Norwich was one of the very first places in the country to achieve anything like accurate figures. From the end of June 1579 they introduced a new system: every week the number of deaths in the city was reported to them (strictly speaking it was the number of burials, but as burial usually came within 24 hours of death, this is not a significant factor). The first count was in the week ending 27 June when 56 burials were recorded. This was much higher than the ‘average’ as the plague was already taking its toll. Every week the aldermen sat together in the Guildhall as the figure was announced, no doubt hoping that the peak had been reached, and that there would be no second wave. As it happened the highest figure was reached in the week ending 15 August with 352 burials, and although the decline was very slow throughout the following weeks with the occasional ‘spike’, there was no second wave that year: plague was very much a disease of summer, dying to almost nothing in the winter months.
The statistics were obviously a vital tool for the aldermen and the counting continued every week for about sixty years. Like any form of data recording, it got more detailed as the years passed: from 1590 onward, for example, the figures separated plague deaths from deaths from other causes. Later births (strictly, baptisms) were also included in the weekly figures.
Another refinement was to separate the deaths of ‘Strangers’ from those born in England. These were refugees from the Low Countries who came to Norwich in the 1560s and 1570s, and who are thought to have made up a quarter to a third of this city’s population. The figures provided to the Mayor’s Court show that this group was hit particularly hard: over half the deaths came from this community.
The greatest difference between then and now lies in healthcare. There was of course no National Health Service and very few doctors, who were very expensive – most ordinary people would live and die without seeing one. All you could do if you caught the plague was to go to bed, and hope to recover: this means that just about everybody who died did so at home.
In any case, there were no hospitals as we know them. Institutions with the name ‘hospital’ -like the Great Hospital in Bishopgate – were much more like modern care homes, places for the elderly and infirm to see out their last days. It was vital to keep people who might carry the infection away from the vulnerable inhabitants. This was achieved through self-isolation and social distancing. In 1631, for example, the inhabitants of the Great Hospital were told that they must not go out, except in the most exceptional circumstances and with the permission of the Keeper. People from outside who in normal circumstances came into the Hospital for food were told they could no longer go in: the food would be brought to them outside.
Education was very different four centuries ago and few children would be going to school at all. However, the difficulties of social distancing were recognised, and applied at a very local level. Regulations in the 1630s said that schools ‘near any place infected’ should be closed. During an outbreak of plague in the city in 1631, schools in Heigham and in West Wymer ward (the St Benedict’s Street area) were closed as a precaution: a very localised form of lockdown.
There does not seem to have been a general closure of places of entertainment. If a case of plague involved someone living in a pub, that inn was locked up like any other house where there was infection. To show that the inn was no longer open, its inn sign was ordered to be taken down. Other forms of entertainment like travelling shows, always had to get a licence from the Mayor’s Court – even in good years they were often chary of issuing these, citing the danger of the spread of plague as a reason for refusing a license. In times of plague, they naturally refused to allow such entertainments.
The Court tried to prevent crowds gathering for funerals. Different rules were set out at different times – sometimes it was forbidden to toll the church bells, sometimes it was ordered that funerals of plague victims had to take place before sunrise or after sunset.
‘Lock-down’, ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’. The words would be strange to the aldermen of Norwich four hundred years ago but the ideas behind them would be very familiar as they struggled to control outbreaks of plague in their city.
Compiled using the following sources:
The formal records of the Norwich City Assembly: NRO, NCR 16d/3-6.
The records of the Mayor’s Court: NRO, NCR 16a/9-24.
The parish registers of the churches within the city: NRO, PD
By Frank Meeres