Bills of Mortality , or the weekly list of deaths and their causes, were published in London during the final years of Queen Elizabeth I. Then from 1603 they were published continuously by the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks.
There were 130 parishes in London. The weekly list gives historians an insight into the statistics of the period not to mention some of the mechanisms of the Grim Reaper. In the week commencing August 15 1665 8 people died from “winde,” another from “lethargy” whilst 190 were carried away by “fever and purples” which sounds downright unpleasant not to mention suspiciously like the bubonic plague. A total of 3880 souls were listed as having died from Yersinia pestis as the bacilli carried by fleas should be more correctly known.
From the Bills of Mortality it is possible to chart the progress of the disease. The earliest outbreak was in the parish of St Giles in the Fields. It was a poor parish so no one paid a great deal of attention. Gradually the numbers increased and the plague moved inside the city walls.
London lost roughly 15% of its population with the numbers peaking during the hottest months of the year. In one week in September the number of deaths from bubonic plague was listed as 7,165.
While a total of 68,596 deaths were recorded in the city, the true number was probably over 100,000.
Those who could left the city and took the disease with them. Charles II and his courtiers left in July for Hampton Court and then Oxford. Court cases were also moved from Westminster to Oxford. The poor had no option but to remain, shut in to their homes by officials if they or a member of their family caught the disease; discovered by searchers when they died and buried in pits such as the one unearthed by the construction of Crossrail.
As for the Bills of Mortality it turns out that the Guildhall Library in London holds the most complete collection of the documents. They, along with the story of the plague, can be viewed at the City of London’s online exhibition about the Great Plague which can be found by clicking on the link and opening a new window. https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/guildhall-library/events-exhibitions/Pages/great-plague-online-exhibition.aspx
Bills of Mortality may be viewed on line at https://wellcomecollection.org/
Bills of Mortality August 15 -22, 1665. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Chart of distribution of the Great Plague, 1665. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Title page to a statistical analysis of mortality during the plague epidemic in London of 1665. Etching, 18–. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Plague in London, 1665. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY