My daughter keeps asking if coronavirus is like the plague and each time I respond, I start to explain “no, not really..” and I try and work my way through the virus v. bacteria debate and the severity of the illnesses and physical symptoms until I think I’ve got all the facts covered.
Then she blind-sides me and asks to write a ‘news report’ from the time of the Great Plague (one of the perks of lockdown schooling – picking her own topics to learn). So I look through the facts with her and wouldn’t you know it? It becomes harder to say “no, not really..” and I have to reframe my thinking.
Let me explain..
Plague and its wildfire-spread has been a constant bane of humanity since the first seafarers began exploring Earth’s continents. Known in the fourteenth century as the Black Death, Pestilence or the Great Mortality (amongst other dread-inducing descriptors), the bacteria spread from country to country via flea and rat, ship and cargo, passed rapidly through human populations via flea bites, bodily fluids, infected tissue and human coughs. The disease swept through Asia, Africa and Europe, over millenia, killing indiscriminately.
The bacterium Yersina Pestis has been recorded from Ancient Egypt, Neolithic Sweden, Bronze Age Russia, Iron Age Armenia, Roman Byzantine Empire, recurrent outbreaks in the Medieval Mediterranean, China and India and in every century since. The deadly bacteria still hovers menacingly in modern day Madagascar and sub-Saharan Africa, occasionally surfacing to wreak its special brand of havoc.
Yersina Pestis, carried by fleas, originated in North Africa, India and China, spread by Nile rats and Indian Black rats and Oriental rats as global trade increased with the industrialisation of the world. The rats hopped off in ports around the globe or merchants handed infected goods over, spreading the bacterium throughout global trade-routes. in many ways, the Plague was the disease of global trade. Nowadays, it’s treatable with antibiotics, if the people in need of the medicines can access them.
In the year 1665, an outbreak of the Plague arrived in England, this time known as the Great Plague. The United Kingdom’s response to the arrival of the plague is worth considering. Charles II had been restored to the monarchy after the death of Oliver Cromwell (whose head still stood on a pole outside Whitehall), Samuel Pepys worked for the Admiralty and six-year old Daniel Defoe (later to write about the plague with reference to his Uncle’s diaries) lived in City of London, which bustled with wealthy nobles and merchants, alongside the poorest city-dwellers. The plague had been raging in mainland Europe for many years and trading vessels arriving from infected cities had been quarantined on the Thames before arrival. The quarantine wasn’t enough to stop the spread of Yersina Pestis.
The Great Plague spread on fleas and rats in the early months of 1665, outwards from the docks to the poor parishioners of St. Giles and as rumours of suspicious deaths reached the Privy Council, Justices of the Peace were sent to investigate. Where the JP’s discovered plague-affected victims, entire households were sealed-up.
The year progressed and May brought warmer weather and further instances of plague-related deaths. The Privy Council closed ale houses and limited the use of lodging houses, but the number of cases in St. Giles continued to rise and constables began to quarantine the area.
The measures came too late and by July of the same year, the plague ran rampant through the City. Charles II fled for the country with his court, merchants and professionals closed their businesses and left London. The Lord Mayor remained to govern an eerily quiet London and others (including Samuel Pepys) chose to stay behind. Clergymen, physicians and apothecaries remained to carry out their duties, tending to the scared and sick inhabitants of London. As time passed, other city-dwellers wishing to leave, could only do so with a Certificate of Good Health, which became harder to obtain as the disease raged on.
It became illegal to go to theatres and football games and other group activities. People displaying signs of sickness were told to isolate in their own homes, eventually a red ‘X’ was to be painted on infected household’s doors. Fires were lit to cleanse the air, cats and dogs were killed in their thousands to try and prevent the spread of the disease, and plague doctors experimented with ‘cures’.
By September 1665, the Great Plague had peaked and Charles II returned to his London court in February of the following year (just seven months before the City would be ravaged by flame in the Great Fire of London).
Were there any details in the basic Great Plague list-of-facts worth comparing to Covid-19?
Well actually, yes.
Government Response to Plague Outbreak in London, 1665:
Closure of shops and businesses
Closure of ale houses and lodging houses
Banning of theatre, sports events and group meetings
Wealthy Residents’ response to Plague Outbreak in London, 1665:
Flee the City to take up residence in country homes
(or) Stay and wait out the disease
Poor Residents’ response to Plague Outbreak in London, 1665:
Banned from leaving the City
Banned from leaving their homes
Care-giving services response to Plague Outbreak in London 1665:
Continue caring for and comforting the vulnerable, sick and dying
Continue comforting and bringing hope to the residents of London.
This virulent bacteria has plagued the world population for a very, very long time. But it is not alone in its contagious, deadly spread. Bacterium and viruses alike want to spread and devour, to survive. Smallpox, measles, yellow fever, dysentry, typhoid, cholera, coronavirus.. Deadly diseases all, and largely managed (or avoided) through medical research and application.
THE CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19)
The common coronavirus ancestor is thought to have developed some 10,000 years ago, from a much older strain of the virus. It is usually carried in bats and birds but passes onto other animals and humans who have contact with virus-carrying creatures. Over the last twenty years, human coronavirus strains and diseases have occurred repeatedly in Saudi Arabia and China, spreading outwards at alarming rates before waning out and disappearing from the public perception.
This time, the Covid-19 coronavirus has spread across the globe in a matter of weeks through travel and trade. Holiday-makers, modern-day explorers, business-travellers and traders have brought the coronavirus back from their travels and the virus is thriving in human hosts from China to America. but the process is the same.. the virus hitches a ride and spreads through human contact.
Even so, this Coronavirus Pandemic that we are living through right now has taken us all by surprise. We hear the phrases ‘strange times’ and ‘unprecedented times’ over and over and we start to believe that we are the only generations who have had to live through these measures, but this is nothing new. The human response to deadly contagion has been established for centuries: Shield ourselves from the problem until it goes away (unless you’re a care-worker, chronicler, essential worker or a government official keeping order).
Our pubs and theatres are closed; businesses, shops and schools are closed; sports events and public meetings are banned; we are in lock-down, self-isolating in our houses with our families whether we are sick or not. And all the while, nurses and doctors tend to the sick; police and military personnel keep law and order; shop-workers keep our shelves stocked; kind-hearted individuals provide essential care to the vulnerable; councils run on skeleton staff and journalists document these ‘precedented times’.
There is something comforting, I think, in realising that we are not alone in history in facing the constriction of isolation and aiming to halt the spread of a deadly, indiscriminate disease. We are well-placed in these times, to ride out the course of the pandemic with hindsight to guide us and foresight to keep us positive and ready to take up our places in the world once the threat of the virus has subsided.
Patience is more easily achieved with a bit of perspective, service to our neighbours and a heavy helping of gratitude. And there’s nothing like the long-view over centuries and millennia of human existence to provide a strong dose of perspective.
Be it bacterium or viruses that threaten us, rest assured, we’ve lived through this as a species before, and every time the diseases are encountered, we learn more about them and learn to adjust our behaviours and become more prepared for future outbreaks.
.. And next time my daughter asks if living through the coronavirus lockdown is like living through the Great Plague, I’ve got my answer prepared.
Thomas Wilson was a reckless young jake, carousing and imbibing in the meanest taverns in London. The son of a Baronet, motherless since his 10th year, what did he have to lose? His brother WiIliam would inherit the Baronetcy, his brother Edward was destined to be ordained, his sisters wed for love into good families, his other brothers were settled in their ways. Thomas though, he felt the pull of something else, some edge of danger beckoned him, some devil on his shoulder that whispered of the delights of the night and the taste of ale and colonial rum.
Eastbourne, his home town, stifled him, made him feel small and unimportant. A surfeit of siblings had the same effect, wherever Thomas looked, he found no validation. He was one of many, unimportant, yet bound by his father’s protestant conscience and unflinching sense of duty. Thomas was supposed to be good and honourable.
But it was hard.
Cromwell was dead, stricken by malaria some fourteen years earlier. Charles II had been restored to the monarchy and Cromwell’s puritanical, sober rule had ended, now the King and the country celebrated. Too much, some would say. Revellers teetering past Westminster Hall could toast to Cromwell’s severed head, excavated from his grave after Parliament declared the execution of Charles I as regicide.
London was in recovery, from the devastations of the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666, two consecutive years in London’s fateful history that saw hundreds of thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of homes destroyed and residents displaced. This new London was one of brick and stone with wide streets and a surfeit of coffee houses.
The year was 1675 and work was just beginning on the new St. Paul’s cathedral, Charles II was attempting to close down the coffee houses – hotbeds of sedition and scandal according to the crown – and the foundation stone for the new Royal Greenwich Observatory was set in place.
The social divide was as marked as ever, beggars and idlers lined the streets alongside orphaned children and shoeblackers, street hawkers and labourers, prostitutes and destitutes. Butchers, blacksmiths and brewers traded with lawyers, MPs and bankers. London was on the up, but only for some.
Amidst the social and structural turmoil, ruthless press gangers and spirits scoured the streets for young, unwary gullibles to lure onto ships bound for the new world or the wars of empire. The press gangers bundled men onto naval ships to fight for their King and country in foreign wars. The spirits kidnapped children and young adults and sent them to a life of indentured servitude in the colonies. Both were to be feared.
William Bullock, in 1649, was recorded as stating that “..the usual way of getting servants, hath been by a sort of men nick-named ”spirits..”
The spirits operated a network of organised crime – backed by ships captains, merchants and corrupt officials, henchmen, fences and petty thieves. They targeted the poor and helpless, street beggars and street children, criminals and idlers. Cellars, attics and tap-rooms of London served as temporary prison cells where the stolen people were hidden until they could be passed onto ships at anchor in the Thames.*
Thomas, inebriated and out of his wits, was kidnapped and tossed on board a Jamaica-bound ship. The British had taken Jamaica from the Spaniards in 1655 and now many of the British-Jamaican settlers were land owners invested in growing cash crops for trade – a lucrative business – but a back breaking and laborious one. Jamaican planters needed a workforce, and once they had worked through the willing labourers, they invited ‘spirits’ to ‘recruit’ fresh young blood for their enterprises.
Indentured servants were forced to work the land in insufferable heat as they worked out their term of servitude – ostensibly between four and seven years, though many were tricked into much longer contracts – or died before they achieved freedom.
The first Jamaican slaves (after the British takeover) were white, British men, women and children, expending their youth in the hard-baked Caribbean soil. They worked for free, had to buy the meagre clothes they were permitted to wear and accept their meagre food rations.
Pity poor Thomas Wilson of Eastbourne, son of Baronet William Wilson I, Sheriff of Sussex, as he sweated and ached in perpetual servitude on a plantation so far from home. His father, under no illusion as to his sons predilections for wine and women, thought his son lost even before his son was lost. William passed in ignorance as to his wayward son’s fate until a letter arrived at Bourne Place addressed to him from the colonies.
The letter was a dreadful tale of woe from a truly attrite son, practically prodigal in his desire for home. William Wilson the elder sought the counsel of his fellow townsmen and his pleas fell upon the ears of Captain Francis Scarlett, a native of Eastbourne with lands on the Wag Water River in the Parish of St. Andrews, Jamaica.
Captain Scarlett, having sailed to Jamaica, made enquiries about a plantation servant named Thomas Wilson and “succeeded in effecting his freedom.”* The unlucky Thomas, now blessed with release at the command of his father, bided a while with his saviour before returning to Eastbourne. Though it is not to be assumed that the young man changed his ways entirely, for a clause in William Wilson the elder’s will, read in 1685 on the event of his demise, mentioned ‘a sum of money to be employed for the benefit of the family of Thomas Wilson, a son, “until he shall become a civil and orderly person, fit to employ and manage money”.’
So concludes the curious tale of an Eastbourne man spirited away to Jamaica in the early days of empire.
More stories to emerge from the annals of Eastbourne history include tales from a Neolithic enclosure; Rituals at a Bronze Age settlement in the marshes, a Flotilla of fishing ships rescuing British soldiers from a beach in France after the Dunkirk evacuations and.. well.. you might just have to buy the book to find out more!
Jordan, Don and Walsh, Michael, White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, NYU Press, 2008
A seventeenth century tale of political intrigue set amidst a Jacobean Mansion with a cast of monarch-loyalists and Cromwell’s parliamentarian dragoons. Meet William and Mary Wilson of Bourne Place, Eastbourne.
William Wilson was born in Eastbourne in 1605, the son of Mary Gardener(1585–1613) and Esq. John Wilson(1565–1640). William was a descendant of Sir Thomas Wilson (1524-1581), Knight, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I. He married Mary Haddon in 1642 and they had their first son, William (second Baronet of Eastbourne) in 1643. They went on to have another six children – one of whom was kidnapped as an adult by pirates and taken to the West Indies – but more on that later.
Mary Haddon was born in London, also in 1605, the daughter of Francis Haddon (1580-1645) and Judith Carter (1585-1665). Judith Carter remarried on the death of Francis, a man named Dr. Edward Burton, Chaplain to Charles I and Rector of Broadwater (1646-1660). Dr. Burton, of the Eastbourne-Burtons, owned Bourne Place (now Compton Place) and sold the estate to William Wilson and his step-daughter Mary, in 1644.
The Wilson’s seven children were baptised in Eastbourne between 1643-1652. Five sons, William, John, Francis, Thomas and Edward, and two daughters, Judith and Philadelphia.
The Wilson’s lived through the reign of Charles I, the English Civil Wars, the Commonwealth, the Restoration of the Monarchy and the reign of Charles II. They were not just bystanders to the events, their loyalties ensured they were involved in the fray. Confrontations between the monarchy and Parliament over power, authority, religion, finances and taxes brought division to the people of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland; the countries were divided in two: those for the monarchy and those for Parliament
William Wilson, a staunch Royalist, was contacted by Charles I from Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, where he had escaped to from imprisonment in Hampton Court in November 1647. Sir William was asked whether he would be prepared to receive the King in Eastbourne, to which he replied that he would with his fortune and his life. It didn’t come to that though, as King Charles subsequently negotiated a deal with the Scots and they provided him with an army – which led to the second Civil War of 1648.
Here, we sense the nature of the Wilson’s devotion to the crown, a loyalty that was generations-deep. William was prepared to put his own life and the well-being of his family and their fortune behind the needs of the King. He wasn’t on his own in his loyalties either, Dr. Edward Burton, Mary’s stepfather, would later have an unequivocal epitaph etched onto his tomb in Broadwater Church:
“He was always a hater and smiter of Presbytarians”. Dr. Edward Burton, 1660
King Charles I Scots-alliance failed and he was recaptured by the Parliamentarians, put to trial and sentenced to death, and publicly beheaded on 30th January 1649 outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London. There followed eleven years of Commonwealth, in which England and Wales, then Ireland and Scotland were governed as a republic, with Oliver Cromwell leading the united Commonwealth from 1653-1658 as Lord Protector.
The same year that Oliver Cromwell was declared Lord Protector by the New Model Army, William Wilson of Bourne Place was made Sheriff of Sussex. We can imagine William’s sympathies lying with the exiled son of Charles I – the future Charles II – who had escaped the country to join his Catholic mother, Henrietta Maria, in France while the Puritan Parliament ruled over the Commonwealth and the moral-laws of its people.
While William Wilson lay seriously ill in bed on Good Friday in 1658, a detachment of dragoons sent by Oliver Cromwell arrived at Bourne Place, ordered to search the house for evidence of a Royalist conspiracy. Though William could do nothing to help himself in this circumstance, Mary swiftly realised the danger and sought to distract the soldiers with a fresh-baked wheatear* pie. While they ate, she hurriedly dashed all William’s incriminating paperwork into a blazing fire. By the time the dragoons were ready to search the house, there was nothing left for them to find.
*Wheatear: Small, ground-dwelling bird common in England and Ireland – winters in Africa.
Later in 1658, Oliver Cromwell died of Malaria at the Palace of Whitehall, in London. The Wilson’s daughter, Philadelphia, studying at a school in Hackney at the time, wrote a letter home to her mother:
I have been to Whitehall to wait on my cousin Gardner, and I saw the Lord Mayor’s show, and by her command we saw the Protector lying in state, which is the most stately sight that I ever did see.”
Philadelphia Wilson, 1658
Charles II was restored to the crown in 1660, much to the delight of the Wilson’s of Bourne Place. In 1661, William Wilson was created Baronet for his loyalty to the Crown, by the title of Willelmus Wilson de Eastborne, Master of Horse to Earl of Suffolk, High Sheriff of Sussex, 1st Baronet of Eastbourne.
Sadly, Mary Wilson died just three months later and was buried in the Church of St. Mary’s, but Sir William Wilson lived on at Bourne Place until his death in 1685, when the estate and title passed onto his eldest son, William. Sir William Senior requested to be buried alongside his wife in the church in Old Town:
..in my chancel, belonging to my house, in the East end of the south aisle of the Parish Church of Eastbourne, at the right hand of my dear and loving wife who lies against the doore.”
SirWilliam Wilson, 1685
Sir William left a curious clause in his will concerning his son, Thomas, who would not receive his inheritance until “he shall become a civil and orderly person, fit to employ and manage the money”. This is the son who later becomes the subject of a kidnapping plot which sees him sold as a plantation slave in Jamaica. But more on this another day..
I’ll be visiting the current Compton Place in January for a tour, so more on the old Wilson’s house next year.
Researching for a Stuart-era story for the History of Eastbourne storybook has led me down a few rabbit holes but has also brought to life this very interesting tale of a family of loyal royalists caught up in the turmoil of the English Civil Wars. Originally flagged up by Jo (Seaman) in his exhibition The Story of Eastbourne, I’m seeing if I can delve a little deeper into the lives of Mary Wilson, nee Haddon; William Wilson (first Baronet of Eastbourne) and their children; and life in a Jacobean Mansion in seventeenth century Eastbourne.