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Lessons from history: London's last lockdown

21 August 2020


Jonathan Marriott, Chief Investment Officer, and Sophie Campbell, guest author

Panic buying, self-isolation, an unknown pathogen: The link between spring 2020 and summer 1665.

Pandemics have occurred periodically since records began. Records of a flu-like disease killing tens of thousands in Babylon date back over three thousand years. It is thought that Bubonic plague struck the Roman Empire under the Emperor Justinian in the mid-6th century, wiping out as much as half the population of Europe.

The economic and social impact of these early occurrences is hard to assess. Bubonic plague hit again in several waves, most notably in England with the “Black Death” in the 14th century and the Great Plague of London in 1665/66. Bubonic plague was carried by fleas on rats, and spread by trade through Europe, Asia and Africa. It killed as many as 90% of the people who caught it. It is estimated that 100,000 people died in London during the last major outbreak.

In the 14th century, the plague caused a shortage of labour, which resulted in a steep rise in wages for workers. There are also suggestions that the shortage of labour gave more opportunities for women in the workforce, and opportunities to manage the businesses they inherited.

The 1665 outbreak in London is well-recorded, particularly everyday life in Samuel Pepys’s diaries: houses where disease had been found were marked with a red cross and quarantined, funerals were supposed to take place at night without crowds, and people feared to go out. Pepys records people breaking quarantine to attend funerals, and he himself snuck out to visit his mistress. However, not all activity ceased, and with help from the Great Fire of London, the disease was eventually defeated.

Post the disaster, the rebuilding of London may well have contributed to the economic recovery, and saw the building of Christopher Wren’s architectural landmarks. Cambridge University closed in 1665 for nearly two years. Isaac Newton had just received his Bachelor’s degree and retreated to the family home at Woolsthorpe, 60 miles north of Cambridge. Away from the distractions of University life, he started his work on calculus, optics and gravitation that would culminate in his great work of 1687, Principia Mathematica. The lesson from this is that, out of adversity, opportunities arise and, for some, it can lead to great creativity.

"How empty the streets are"

St. Olave’s Church, which sits in the ‘Square Mile’ – the old City of London, our Wall Street – is the best place to get the feel of that awful summer 345 years ago. Bubonic plague, carried from Asia to Europe by the fleas on ships’ rats and manifested in humans as unsightly lumps, or ‘buboes’, resulted in over 68,000 recorded deaths. That was about 15% of the city’s population – today’s equivalent would be 1,400,000.

The church is gorgeous but has some gruesome features. Its stone gate arch sports a daisy chain of skulls, which led Charles Dickens to call it ‘St Ghastly Grim’, and its graveyard looms high above the church door. There are rumoured to be 300 plague victims under there – there are similar rumours, usually unfounded, across London. At least now self-isolation does not mean being locked into your house with a foot-high red cross and the words ‘God have mercy on us’ daubed on your front door. We don’t have pesthouses for the infected nor open plague pits as there were at St Paul’s in Shadwell, Moorfields in the City and Tothill Fields near Westminster Abbey.

It’s the human details that are so painfully familiar: the metropolis closing down; people eyeing each other in empty streets; hypochondria (have I got it, have I not?); nervous sallies to shop for necessities; rumours of petty crime, sick neighbours and magical remedies; prayers to cheer you on; grief at the deaths of friends and family. A vivid account comes from a famous St. Olave’s parishioner, Samuel Pepys, a naval administrator and Londoner who just happened to be writing a shorthand diary over the most riveting 11 years in English history: "16 October 1665. But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy,’ he wrote in his house on Seething Lane, ‘so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard…"

This article has been created using abridged versions of the following articles. Please see below for the articles in full.

Read more from 'Lessons from history' by Jonathan Marriott, Chief Investment Officer, covering not only past pandemics but also natural disasters and major economic events.

Read more from 'London's last lockdown', by Sophie Campbell, guest author on MAG/NET.

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