• Imagining History

The Plague – Information for Primary School Children


A stowaway rat aboard a ship brings the plague to England in 1348. Courtesy Wellcome Collection gallery
A stowaway rat aboard a ship brings the plague to England in 1348. Courtesy Wellcome Collection gallery

The plague? That doesn’t sound fun. When did that happen?


The Plague first arrived in England in the late 1340s. Experts believe it was probably brought here by rats or fleas on a ship that arrived in Weymouth, on the South Coast of England, in 1348.


For the next 300 years, England was attacked again and again by outbreaks of the plague, including the well-known eras of the “Black Death” and “Great Plague of London”. But the plague didn’t just rear its ugly head on these occasional outbreaks – there was at least one recorded death of plague every year in England between 1348 and the 1660s.


A plaque displays Weymouth's claim to historic fame on the harbourside in Weymouth - courtesy Andrew Bone
A plaque displays Weymouth's claim to historic fame on the harbourside in Weymouth (Hands up if you read "plaque" as "plague" by accident when reading that last sentence!) - courtesy Andrew Bone

But what actually was the plague?


The plague was an infectious disease that spread from human to human. The plague came in three different forms, meaning it could infect your body in three different ways. There was the septicaemic plague (nope, we don't know how to pronounce that either), which would infect your blood; the pneumonic plague (try pronouncing that one without the "p"), which would infect your lungs; and the bubonic plague which would infect your immune system (your body’s defence system).





Three different forms?! People didn’t stand a chance!


Absolutely. But don’t panic! Although the septicaemic (there's that fun word again!) and pneumonic forms of the plague were the most deadly, luckily very few people were ever infected with these two forms of plague. The most popular form of plague (and the form that is mostly responsible for the “Black Death” and “Great Plague of London” outbreaks) was the bubonic plague.


The bodies of plague victims are buried in a mass grave called a Plague Pit. Courtesy of National Library of Medicine
The bodies of plague victims are buried in a mass grave called a Plague Pit. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

So what’s special about the bubonic plague?


Although it was the least deadly of the three forms, the bubonic plague was still a vicious disease that killed millions of people. Those infected would start to show symptoms in 2-6 days. They would develop flu-like symptoms, with a fever, headaches and often vomiting. The victim’s skin would look discoloured, with red rings or rashes that would develop into buboes.


Erm, what are buboes?


Buboes are large swollen red lumps in areas of the body where you have a lot of glands (or “lymph nodes”) such as your armpits, neck, groin or thighs. They were often filled with puss and very painful. If you were really unlucky, bubonic plague could develop into septicaemic plague (we promise this is the last time this word will turn up!), where the skin would start to turn black; or pneumonic plague, where the victim would start coughing blood.


The plague was spread by rat biting fleas 1665
Here's a diagram of a flea - sorry everyone! Courtesy Wellcome Collection gallery

Eww! How did people catch this horrible disease?


Experts now know that the disease was spread by fleas on rats. A flea would bite a plague-infected rat and its guts would get bunged up (this is a scientific term, honest) with the disease. This “blocked flea” would then move on to bite another rat. On biting the new rat, the flea would spit out its previous meal (along with all of the plague bacteria from the infected rat) into the bitten area on the new rat. This rat then becomes infected with plague too.


A rat makes a break for the shore from a ship, taking plague-carrying fleas with it. Courtesy Wellcome Collection gallery
A rat makes a break for the shore from a ship, taking plague-carrying fleas with it. Courtesy Wellcome Collection gallery

Okay, that was graphic and a bit gross. And you still haven’t told me how human beings got infected!


Good point. Normally, once fleas have a taste for one type of animal (like a rat), they don’t like to chomp on another type of animal. But by accidentally infecting all of the rats with plague, the rats would die off, leaving the fleas with very little to eat. Soon, the fleas would turn to the next closest animal for dinner.


Unfortunately at this time, human hygiene and sanitation wasn’t great and we spent a lot of time living around rats and other vermin. This meant the next closest meal for the fleas was us! The fleas started to bite humans and infect us with the plague instead.


So if you see a bunch of dead rats, run for the hills?


Definitely! If all of the rats are dead, the fleas are coming for the humans next!


A painting of the Great Fire of London 1666 by Rita Greer
A painting of the Great Fire of London 1666 by Rita Greer - could the fire have stopped the spread of the plague?

How did this horrible nightmare end?


Well, the plague just sort of stopped.


It just stopped?


Yes! Experts still aren’t sure why it stopped so suddenly.


Some people think that the Great Fire of London killed all of the rats and fleas that infected people in London with the plague. But that wouldn’t explain why the plague stopped spreading around the rest of England too.


Other experts believe that perhaps rats or humans developed a natural immunity to the plague so that their bodies no longer became infected. Either way, the plague stopped spreading and the people of England let out a huge collective sigh of relief!