Worldwide Daily News for the Arts + Culture

by Daniel Defoe, 1722

being Observations or Memorials
of the most remarkable occurrences,
as well public as private, which happened in
London during the last great visitation in 1665.
Written by a CITIZEN who continued
all the while in London.
Never made publick before

Part I: Click Here


As they expected, so the people whom they had heard came on directly to the barn, when one of our travellers challenged, like soldiers upon the guard, with ‘Who comes there?’ The people did not answer immediately, but one of them speaking to another that was behind him, ‘Alas! alas! we are all disappointed,’ says he. ‘Here are some people before us; the barn is taken up.’

They all stopped upon that, as under some surprise, and it seems there was about thirteen of them in all, and some women among them. They consulted together what they should do, and by their discourse our travellers soon found they were poor, distressed people too, like themselves, seeking shelter and safety; and besides, our travellers had no need to be afraid of their coming up to disturb them, for as soon as they heard the words, ‘Who comes there?’ these could hear the women say, as if frighted, ‘Do not go near them. How do you know but they may have the plague?’ And when one of the men said, ‘Let us but speak to them’, the women said, ‘No, don’t by any means. We have escaped thus far by the goodness of God; do not let us run into danger now, we beseech you.’

Our travellers found by this that they were a good, sober sort of people, and flying for their lives, as they were; and, as they were encouraged by it, so John said to the joiner, his comrade, ‘Let us encourage them too as much as we can’; so he called to them, ‘Hark ye, good people,’ says the joiner, ‘we find by your talk that you are flying from the same dreadful enemy as we are. Do not be afraid of us; we are only three poor men of us. If you are free from the distemper you shall not be hurt by us. We are not in the barn, but in a little tent here in the outside, and we will remove for you; we can set up our tent again immediately anywhere else’; and upon this a parley began between the joiner, whose name was Richard, and one of their men, who said his name was Ford.

Ford. And do you assure us that you are all sound men?

Richard. Nay, we are concerned to tell you of it, that you may not be uneasy or think yourselves in danger; but you see we do not desire you should put yourselves into any danger, and therefore I tell you that we have not made use of the barn, so we will remove from it, that you may be safe and we also.

Ford. That is very kind and charitable; but if we have reason to be satisfied that you are sound and free from the visitation, why should we make you remove now you are settled in your lodging, and, it may be, are laid down to rest? We will go into the barn, if you please, to rest ourselves a while, and we need not disturb you.

Richard. Well, but you are more than we are. I hope you will assure us that you are all of you sound too, for the danger is as great from you to us as from us to you.

Ford. Blessed be God that some do escape, though it is but few; what may be our portion still we know not, but hitherto we are preserved.

Richard. What part of the town do you come from? Was the plague come to the places where you lived?

Ford. Ay, ay, in a most frightful and terrible manner, or else we had not fled away as we do; but we believe there will be very few left alive behind us.

Richard. What part do you come from?

Ford. We are most of us of Cripplegate parish, only two or three of Clerkenwell parish, but on the hither side.

Richard. How then was it that you came away no sooner?

Ford. We have been away some time, and kept together as well as we could at the hither end of Islington, where we got leave to lie in an old uninhabited house, and had some bedding and conveniences of our own that we brought with us; but the plague is come up into Islington too, and a house next door to our poor dwelling was infected and shut up; and we are come away in a fright.

Richard. And what way are you going?

Ford. As our lot shall cast us; we know not whither, but God will guide those that look up to Him.

They parleyed no further at that time, but came all up to the barn, and with some difficulty got into it. There was nothing but hay in the barn, but it was almost full of that, and they accommodated themselves as well as they could, and went to rest; but our travellers observed that before they went to sleep an ancient man who it seems was father of one of the women, went to prayer with all the company, recommending themselves to the blessing and direction of Providence, before they went to sleep.

It was soon day at that time of the year, and as Richard the joiner had kept guard the first part of the night, so John the soldier relieved him, and he had the post in the morning, and they began to be acquainted with one another. It seems when they left Islington they intended to have gone north, away to Highgate, but were stopped at Holloway, and there they would not let them pass; so they crossed over the fields and hills to the eastward, and came out at the Boarded River, and so avoiding the towns, they left Hornsey on the left hand and Newington on the right hand, and came into the great road about Stamford Hill on that side, as the three travellers had done on the other side. And now they had thoughts of going over the river in the marshes, and make forwards to Epping Forest, where they hoped they should get leave to rest. It seems they were not poor, at least not so poor as to be in want; at least they had enough to subsist them moderately for two or three months, when, as they said, they were in hopes the cold weather would check the infection, or at least the violence of it would have spent itself, and would abate, if it were only for want of people left alive to be infected.

This was much the fate of our three travellers, only that they seemed to be the better furnished for travelling, and had it in their view to go farther off; for as to the first, they did not propose to go farther than one day’s journey, that so they might have intelligence every two or three days how things were at London.

But here our travellers found themselves under an unexpected inconvenience: namely that of their horse, for by means of the horse to carry their baggage they were obliged to keep in the road, whereas the people of this other band went over the fields or roads, path or no path, way or no way, as they pleased; neither had they any occasion to pass through any town, or come near any town, other than to buy such things as they wanted for their necessary subsistence, and in that indeed they were put to much difficulty; of which in its place.

But our three travellers were obliged to keep the road, or else they must commit spoil, and do the country a great deal of damage in breaking down fences and gates to go over enclosed fields, which they were loth to do if they could help it.

Our three travellers, however, had a great mind to join themselves to this company and take their lot with them; and after some discourse they laid aside their first design which looked northward, and resolved to follow the other into Essex; so in the morning they took up their tent and loaded their horse, and away they travelled all together.

They had some difficulty in passing the ferry at the river-side, the ferryman being afraid of them; but after some parley at a distance, the ferryman was content to bring his boat to a place distant from the usual ferry, and leave it there for them to take it; so putting themselves over, he directed them to leave the boat, and he, having another boat, said he would fetch it again, which it seems, however, he did not do for above eight days.

Here, giving the ferryman money beforehand, they had a supply of victuals and drink, which he brought and left in the boat for them; but not without, as I said, having received the money beforehand. But now our travellers were at a great loss and difficulty how to get the horse over, the boat being small and not fit for it: and at last could not do it without unloading the baggage and making him swim over.

From the river they travelled towards the forest, but when they came to Walthamstow the people of that town denied to admit them, as was the case everywhere. The constables and their watchmen kept them off at a distance and parleyed with them. They gave the same account of themselves as before, but these gave no credit to what they said, giving it for a reason that two or three companies had already come that way and made the like pretences, but that they had given several people the distemper in the towns where they had passed; and had been afterwards so hardly used by the country (though with justice, too, as they had deserved) that about Brentwood, or that way, several of them perished in the fields—whether of the plague or of mere want and distress they could not tell.

This was a good reason indeed why the people of Walthamstow should be very cautious, and why they should resolve not to entertain anybody that they were not well satisfied of. But, as Richard the joiner and one of the other men who parleyed with them told them, it was no reason why they should block up the roads and refuse to let people pass through the town, and who asked nothing of them but to go through the street; that if their people were afraid of them, they might go into their houses and shut their doors; they would neither show them civility nor incivility, but go on about their business.

The constables and attendants, not to be persuaded by reason, continued obstinate, and would hearken to nothing; so the two men that talked with them went back to their fellows to consult what was to be done. It was very discouraging in the whole, and they knew not what to do for a good while; but at last John the soldier and biscuit-maker, considering a while, ‘Come,’ says he, ‘leave the rest of the parley to me.’ He had not appeared yet, so he sets the joiner, Richard, to work to cut some poles out of the trees and shape them as like guns as he could, and in a little time he had five or six fair muskets, which at a distance would not be known; and about the part where the lock of a gun is he caused them to wrap cloth and rags such as they had, as soldiers do in wet weather to preserve the locks of their pieces from rust; the rest was discoloured with clay or mud, such as they could get; and all this while the rest of them sat under the trees by his direction, in two or three bodies, where they made fires at a good distance from one another.

While this was doing he advanced himself and two or three with him, and set up their tent in the lane within sight of the barrier which the town’s men had made, and set a sentinel just by it with the real gun, the only one they had, and who walked to and fro with the gun on his shoulder, so as that the people of the town might see them. Also, he tied the horse to a gate in the hedge just by, and got some dry sticks together and kindled a fire on the other side of the tent, so that the people of the town could see the fire and the smoke, but could not see what they were doing at it.

After the country people had looked upon them very earnestly a great while, and, by all that they could see, could not but suppose that they were a great many in company, they began to be uneasy, not for their going away, but for staying where they were; and above all, perceiving they had horses and arms, for they had seen one horse and one gun at the tent, and they had seen others of them walk about the field on the inside of the hedge by the side of the lane with their muskets, as they took them to be, shouldered; I say, upon such a sight as this, you may be assured they were alarmed and terribly frighted, and it seems they went to a justice of the peace to know what they should do. What the justice advised them to I know not, but towards the evening they called from the barrier, as above, to the sentinel at the tent.

‘What do you want?’ says John.

It seems John was in the tent, but hearing them call, he steps out, and taking the gun upon his shoulder, talked to them as if he had been the sentinel placed there upon the guard by some officer that was his superior. [Footnote in the original.]

‘Why, what do you intend to do?’ says the constable. ‘To do,’ says John; ‘what would you have us to do?’ Constable. Why don’t you be gone? What do you stay there for?

John. Why do you stop us on the king’s highway, and pretend to refuse us leave to go on our way?

Constable. We are not bound to tell you our reason, though we did let you know it was because of the plague.

John. We told you we were all sound and free from the plague, which we were not bound to have satisfied you of, and yet you pretend to stop us on the highway.

Constable. We have a right to stop it up, and our own safety obliges us to it. Besides, this is not the king’s highway; ’tis a way upon sufferance. You see here is a gate, and if we do let people pass here, we make them pay toll.

John. We have a right to seek our own safety as well as you, and you may see we are flying for our lives: and ’tis very unchristian and unjust to stop us.

Constable. You may go back from whence you came; we do not hinder you from that.

John. No; it is a stronger enemy than you that keeps us from doing that, or else we should not have come hither.

Constable. Well, you may go any other way, then.

John. No, no; I suppose you see we are able to send you going, and all the people of your parish, and come through your town when we will; but since you have stopped us here, we are content. You see we have encamped here, and here we will live. We hope you will furnish us with victuals.

Constable. We furnish you! What mean you by that?

John. Why, you would not have us starve, would you? If you stop us here, you must keep us.

Constable. You will be ill kept at our maintenance.

John. If you stint us, we shall make ourselves the better allowance.

Constable. Why, you will not pretend to quarter upon us by force, will you?

John. We have offered no violence to you yet. Why do you seem to oblige us to it? I am an old soldier, and cannot starve, and if you think that we shall be obliged to go back for want of provisions, you are mistaken.

Constable. Since you threaten us, we shall take care to be strong enough for you. I have orders to raise the county upon you.

John. It is you that threaten, not we. And since you are for mischief, you cannot blame us if we do not give you time for it; we shall begin our march in a few minutes.

This frighted the constable and the people that were with him, that they immediately changed their note.

Constable. What is it you demand of us?

John. At first we desired nothing of you but leave to go through the town; we should have offered no injury to any of you, neither would you have had any injury or loss by us. We are not thieves, but poor people in distress, and flying from the dreadful plague in London, which devours thousands every week. We wonder how you could be so unmerciful!

Constable. Self-preservation obliges us.

John. What! To shut up your compassion in a case of such distress as this?

Constable. Well, if you will pass over the fields on your left hand, and behind that part of the town, I will endeavour to have gates opened for you.

John. Our horsemen cannot pass with our baggage that way; it does not lead into the road that we want to go, and why should you force us out of the road? Besides, you have kept us here all day without any provisions but such as we brought with us. I think you ought to send us some provisions for our relief.

They had but one horse among them.

Constable. If you will go another way we will send you some provisions.

John. That is the way to have all the towns in the county stop up the ways against us.

Constable. If they all furnish you with food, what will you be the worse? I see you have tents; you want no lodging.

John. Well, what quantity of provisions will you send us?

Constable. How many are you?

John. Nay, we do not ask enough for all our company; we are in three companies. If you will send us bread for twenty men and about six or seven women for three days, and show us the way over the field you speak of, we desire not to put your people into any fear for us; we will go out of our way to oblige you, though we are as free from infection as you are.

Here he called to one of his men, and bade him order Captain Richard and his people to march the lower way on the side of the marches, and meet them in the forest; which was all a sham, for they had no Captain Richard, or any such company. [Footnote in the original.]

Constable. And will you assure us that your other people shall offer us no new disturbance?

John. No, no you may depend on it.

Constable. You must oblige yourself, too, that none of your people shall come a step nearer than where the provisions we send you shall be set down.

John. I answer for it we will not.

Accordingly they sent to the place twenty loaves of bread and three or four large pieces of good beef, and opened some gates, through which they passed; but none of them had courage so much as to look out to see them go, and, as it was evening, if they had looked they could not have seen them as to know how few they were.

This was John the soldier’s management. But this gave such an alarm to the county, that had they really been two or three hundred the whole county would have been raised upon them, and they would have been sent to prison, or perhaps knocked on the head.

They were soon made sensible of this, for two days afterwards they found several parties of horsemen and footmen also about, in pursuit of three companies of men, armed, as they said, with muskets, who were broke out from London and had the plague upon them, and that were not only spreading the distemper among the people, but plundering the country.

As they saw now the consequence of their case, they soon saw the danger they were in; so they resolved by the advice also of the old soldier to divide themselves again. John and his two comrades, with the horse, went away, as if towards Waltham; the other in two companies, but all a little asunder, and went towards Epping.

The first night they encamped all in the forest, and not far off of one another, but not setting up the tent, lest that should discover them. On the other hand, Richard went to work with his axe and his hatchet, and cutting down branches of trees, he built three tents or hovels, in which they all encamped with as much convenience as they could expect.

The provisions they had at Walthamstow served them very plentifully this night; and as for the next, they left it to Providence. They had fared so well with the old soldier’s conduct that they now willingly made him their leader, and the first of his conduct appeared to be very good. He told them that they were now at a proper distance enough from London; that as they need not be immediately beholden to the country for relief, so they ought to be as careful the country did not infect them as that they did not infect the country; that what little money they had, they must be as frugal of as they could; that as he would not have them think of offering the country any violence, so they must endeavour to make the sense of their condition go as far with the country as it could. They all referred themselves to his direction, so they left their three houses standing, and the next day went away towards Epping. The captain also (for so they now called him), and his two fellow-travellers, laid aside their design of going to Waltham, and all went together.

When they came near Epping they halted, choosing out a proper place in the open forest, not very near the highway, but not far out of it on the north side, under a little cluster of low pollard-trees. Here they pitched their little camp—which consisted of three large tents or huts made of poles which their carpenter, and such as were his assistants, cut down and fixed in the ground in a circle, binding all the small ends together at the top and thickening the sides with boughs of trees and bushes, so that they were completely close and warm. They had, besides this, a little tent where the women lay by themselves, and a hut to put the horse in.

It happened that the next day, or next but one, was market-day at Epping, when Captain John and one of the other men went to market and bought some provisions; that is to say, bread, and some mutton and beef; and two of the women went separately, as if they had not belonged to the rest, and bought more. John took the horse to bring it home, and the sack which the carpenter carried his tools in, to put it in. The carpenter went to work and made them benches and stools to sit on, such as the wood he could get would afford, and a kind of table to dine on.

They were taken no notice of for two or three days, but after that abundance of people ran out of the town to look at them, and all the country was alarmed about them. The people at first seemed afraid to come near them; and, on the other hand, they desired the people to keep off, for there was a rumour that the plague was at Waltham, and that it had been in Epping two or three days; so John called out to them not to come to them, ‘for,’ says he, ‘we are all whole and sound people here, and we would not have you bring the plague among us, nor pretend we brought it among you.’

After this the parish officers came up to them and parleyed with them at a distance, and desired to know who they were, and by what authority they pretended to fix their stand at that place. John answered very frankly, they were poor distressed people from London who, foreseeing the misery they should be reduced to if plague spread into the city, had fled out in time for their lives, and, having no acquaintance or relations to fly to, had first taken up at Islington; but, the plague being come into that town, were fled farther; and as they supposed that the people of Epping might have refused them coming into their town, they had pitched their tents thus in the open field and in the forest, being willing to bear all the hardships of such a disconsolate lodging rather than have any one think or be afraid that they should receive injury by them.

At first the Epping people talked roughly to them, and told them they must remove; that this was no place for them; and that they pretended to be sound and well, but that they might be infected with the plague for aught they knew, and might infect the whole country, and they could not suffer them there.

John argued very calmly with them a great while, and told them that London was the place by which they—that is, the townsmen of Epping and all the country round them—subsisted; to whom they sold the produce of their lands, and out of whom they made their rent of their farms; and to be so cruel to the inhabitants of London, or to any of those by whom they gained so much, was very hard, and they would be loth to have it remembered hereafter, and have it told how barbarous, how inhospitable, and how unkind they were to the people of London when they fled from the face of the most terrible enemy in the world; that it would be enough to make the name of an Epping man hateful through all the city, and to have the rabble stone them in the very streets whenever they came so much as to market; that they were not yet secure from being visited themselves, and that, as he heard, Waltham was already; that they would think it very hard that when any of them fled for fear before they were touched, they should be denied the liberty of lying so much as in the open fields.

The Epping men told them again, that they, indeed, said they were sound and free from the infection, but that they had no assurance of it; and that it was reported that there had been a great rabble of people at Walthamstow, who made such pretences of being sound as they did, but that they threatened to plunder the town and force their way, whether the parish officers would or no; that there were near two hundred of them, and had arms and tents like Low Country soldiers; that they extorted provisions from the town, by threatening them with living upon them at free quarter, showing their arms, and talking in the language of soldiers; and that several of them being gone away toward Rumford and Brentwood, the country had been infected by them, and the plague spread into both those large towns, so that the people durst not go to market there as usual; that it was very likely they were some of that party; and if so, they deserved to be sent to the county jail, and be secured till they had made satisfaction for the damage they had done, and for the terror and fright they had put the country into.

John answered that what other people had done was nothing to them; that they assured them they were all of one company; that they had never been more in number than they saw them at that time (which, by the way, was very true); that they came out in two separate companies, but joined by the way, their cases being the same; that they were ready to give what account of themselves anybody could desire of them, and to give in their names and places of abode, that so they might be called to an account for any disorder that they might be guilty of; that the townsmen might see they were content to live hardly, and only desired a little room to breathe in on the forest where it was wholesome; for where it was not they could not stay, and would decamp if they found it otherwise there.

‘But,’ said the townsmen, ‘we have a great charge of poor upon our hands already, and we must take care not to increase it; we suppose you can give us no security against your being chargeable to our parish and to the inhabitants, any more than you can of being dangerous to us as to the infection.’

‘Why, look you,’ says John, ‘as to being chargeable to you, we hope we shall not. If you will relieve us with provisions for our present necessity, we will be very thankful; as we all lived without charity when we were at home, so we will oblige ourselves fully to repay you, if God pleases to bring us back to our own families and houses in safety, and to restore health to the people of London.

‘As to our dying here: we assure you, if any of us die, we that survive will bury them, and put you to no expense, except it should be that we should all die; and then, indeed, the last man not being able to bury himself, would put you to that single expense which I am persuaded’, says John, ‘he would leave enough behind him to pay you for the expense of.

‘On the other hand,’ says John, ‘if you shut up all bowels of compassion, and not relieve us at all, we shall not extort anything by violence or steal from any one; but when what little we have is spent, if we perish for want, God’s will be done.’

John wrought so upon the townsmen, by talking thus rationally and smoothly to them, that they went away; and though they did not give any consent to their staying there, yet they did not molest them; and the poor people continued there three or four days longer without any disturbance. In this time they had got some remote acquaintance with a victualling-house at the outskirts of the town, to whom they called at a distance to bring some little things that they wanted, and which they caused to be set down at a distance, and always paid for very honestly.

During this time the younger people of the town came frequently pretty near them, and would stand and look at them, and sometimes talk with them at some space between; and particularly it was observed that the first Sabbath-day the poor people kept retired, worshipped God together, and were heard to sing psalms.

These things, and a quiet, inoffensive behaviour, began to get them the good opinion of the country, and people began to pity them and speak very well of them; the consequence of which was, that upon the occasion of a very wet, rainy night, a certain gentleman who lived in the neighbourhood sent them a little cart with twelve trusses or bundles of straw, as well for them to lodge upon as to cover and thatch their huts and to keep them dry. The minister of a parish not far off, not knowing of the other, sent them also about two bushels of wheat and half a bushel of white peas.

They were very thankful, to be sure, for this relief, and particularly the straw was a—very great comfort to them; for though the ingenious carpenter had made frames for them to lie in like troughs, and filled them with leaves of trees, and such things as they could get, and had cut all their tent-cloth out to make them coverlids, yet they lay damp and hard and unwholesome till this straw came, which was to them like feather-beds, and, as John said, more welcome than feather-beds would have been at another time.

This gentleman and the minister having thus begun, and given an example of charity to these wanderers, others quickly followed, and they received every day some benevolence or other from the people, but chiefly from the gentlemen who dwelt in the country round them. Some sent them chairs, stools, tables, and such household things as they gave notice they wanted; some sent them blankets, rugs, and coverlids, some earthenware, and some kitchen ware for ordering their food.

Encouraged by this good usage, their carpenter in a few days built them a large shed or house with rafters, and a roof in form, and an upper floor, in which they lodged warm: for the weather began to be damp and cold in the beginning of September. But this house, being well thatched, and the sides and roof made very thick, kept out the cold well enough. He made, also, an earthen wall at one end with a chimney in it, and another of the company, with a vast deal of trouble and pains, made a funnel to the chimney to carry out the smoke.

Here they lived comfortably, though coarsely, till the beginning of September, when they had the bad news to hear, whether true or not, that the plague, which was very hot at Waltham Abbey on one side and at Rumford and Brentwood on the other side, was also coming to Epping, to Woodford, and to most of the towns upon the Forest, and which, as they said, was brought down among them chiefly by the higlers, and such people as went to and from London with provisions.

If this was true, it was an evident contradiction to that report which was afterwards spread all over England, but which, as I have said, I cannot confirm of my own knowledge: namely, that the market-people carrying provisions to the city never got the infection or carried it back into the country; both which, I have been assured, has been false.

It might be that they were preserved even beyond expectation, though not to a miracle, that abundance went and came and were not touched; and that was much for the encouragement of the poor people of London, who had been completely miserable if the people that brought provisions to the markets had not been many times wonderfully preserved, or at least more preserved than could be reasonably expected.

To be continued...


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