• Imagining History

The Great Plague of London - A Guide for Children


Loading bodies of plague victims onto carts in the Great Plague of London.
Loading bodies of plague victims onto carts in the Great Plague of London.

The Plague? I’ve heard of that before.


The bubonic plague was one of the deadliest infectious diseases in England between the 1300’s and 1600’s. Although there were many outbreaks of the plague in England during this time, the Great Plague of London was the worst outbreak of them all (and luckily the last outbreak too – save the best ‘til last and all that!).


When did it start?


The Great Plague of London began in 1665 in a small suburb called St. Giles-in-the-Fields. Although it started slowly with just 43 deaths in May, the fatalities soon started to ramp up, with over 6,000 plague deaths in June. In August around 31,000 people died from the plague in London.


Samuel Pepys diary great plague of london 1665
Samuel Pepys kept a diary about his life, including what happened in London during the plague.

What?! Why didn’t people just leave London?


Some people did. In his diary entries from the time, Samuel Pepys describes how London’s streets were empty of people because many rich families had left the city. Even the King, Charles II, fled to Oxford.


But unfortunately, many people couldn’t afford to escape to safer areas of the country. The poor areas of the city were still packed with people. The high numbers of people in these areas meant that they were the worst hit by the plague.





London in 1665. Fires burn to cleanse the air, the cart collects dead bodies and the doors of those infected with the plague are marked with a red cross. Courtesy Wellcome Collection gallery
London in 1665. Fires burn to cleanse the air, the cart collects dead bodies and the doors of those infected with the plague are marked with a red cross. Courtesy Wellcome Collection gallery.

What happened to the people who got infected?


The bubonic plague was a horrible disease where victims would suffer with a fever, headaches and vomiting and develop discolouration of the skin with large painful swellings called buboes.


If somebody in a house became infected, the house was sealed shut. Every person in the infected household had to be imprisoned inside the house, even if they weren’t infected yet, effectively condemning them all to death. The door was painted with a red cross and the words “Lord have mercy on us” to warn outsiders that the household was infected with the plague.


Later, to save those sharing a household with the infected from catching the disease, sheds were built in remote areas where infected people would be taken to stay. These sheds were called “Pest-Houses”. Special wardens were given the job of feeding the residents of the plague-ridden house and stopping them from infecting anybody else.


How many people died?


Although London’s records from the time state that 68,596 people died from the plague during this outbreak, experts believe the number to be much higher, possibly around 100,000 deaths.


the pest house and plague pit in Finsbury Fields - London Great plague of 1665
Courtesy of Wellcome Collection gallery

That’s a lot of dead bodies! Where did they bury them all?


People who died from the plague weren’t buried in normal graveyards because people were scared that they could still catch the plague, even from dead bodies!


The city had people called “Searchers” whose job was to search around the city for anybody who had died from the plague. At night, at the call of “Bring out your dead”, people would load carts with the dead bodies of plague victims, which were taken away to special ditches for burial. These enormous ditches were called Plague Pits. Two of the most well-known Plague Pits in London were in Aldgate (called the “Great Pit”) and Finsbury Fields.


During the peak of the outbreak, Samuel Pepys notes in his diary that so many people were dying from the plague that some burials had to happen during the day too, because there wasn’t enough time to bury them all during the night!


The Great Plague 1665. See what you can spot in this painting by Rita Greer: a plague pit, the plague cart, fire to cleanse the air, buboes on a plague victim, a rat carrying the disease, someone smelling herbs and a Plague Doctor.
The Great Plague 1665. See what you can spot in this painting by Rita Greer: a plague pit, the plague cart, fire to cleanse the air, buboes on a plague victim, a rat carrying the disease, someone smelling herbs and a Plague Doctor.

What did people do to try and stop the spread of the plague?


King Charles II came up with a bunch of rules for people to follow to help stop the spread of the infection. This included not allowing strangers into your home unless they had proof of their good health, no furniture to be removed from infected houses and keeping all houses as clean as possible. He asked for collections of donations to be made to support those suffering from the plague in poor areas and that fires be burned in all public areas to correct the air with fumes.


A drawing of a Plague Doctor. Great Plague of London 1665
A drawing of a Plague Doctor. Though their masks look a bit scary, they were thought to be very helpful to keep the wearer from becoming infected themselves.

Correct the air? What does that mean?


Many people believed that the plague could pass from person to person through bad-smelling air. Because of this, they used anything they could to cover up bad smells. This included using fumes from a fire, or keeping pouches of strong-smelling herbs at hand to smell when required.


Plague Doctors even wore special masks with a large protruding nose area that they could pack full with strong-smelling herbs to ward off the plague when they were treating plague patients.


When did the Great Plague of London end?


In the winter of 1665, the number of plague cases started to fall. And some people believe that the Great Fire of London that happened in 1666 finished off the plague in London for good. By 1667, there were no more large outbreaks of plague in England.