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Plague in Loughborough 1539–1640

Personal preamble – Bob Trubshaw

In the first few months of 1996 I bought a 14.4k modem and visited a small company in Loughborough called GMTnet whose offices were above a used car showrooms (now Baobab cafe). There I signed up for web hosting and an email account. Apart from some contacts in universities this was all pioneering stuff – even my most techie friend had yet to go online.

Google was still in the future but search engines such as Alta Vista revealed the wealth of information already online. But sometimes 'hacking' was equally revealing. Poking about to see what other websites were hosted by GMTnet revealed an article called 'A general study of the Plague in England 1539–1640 with a special reference to Loughborough'. The author was Ian Jessiman. Accustomed as I was to photocopying articles from magazines and such like I duly made a print out of this intriguing piece of research.

During a lockdown clearout I came across this printout at the back of a filing cabinet drawer. It is dated and time-stamped '26th May 1996, 11 04' 06" (although it took until 11 05' 50" to finish printing!). Sadly three graphs included as 'appendices' to the article did not get printed.

GMTnet went out of business by the end of the 1990s and Ian's article went off line. It seems to have been republished online about 2001 but that copy too has disappeared.

The article which follows is a summary of Ian's more extensive article, although I have included all his main insights. As his account of Elizabethan Loughborough seems to have been derived from Anne Richmond's Elizabethan Loughborough (published in 1992) and takes greater prominence in this version I have listed her as a co-author.

Typing up this article in July 2020 allows for reflection on Tudor and twenty-first century approaches to staying safe during epidemics. And it would seem that the Tudors did many of the right things. 'Lockdowns' are described below. In addition there were stringent restrictions on attendance at funerals. A government directive of 1578 stated that the dead were to be buried only at dusk and the ministers officiating should 'be distant from the danger of infection of the person dead, or of the company that shall bring the corpse to the grave.'

Presciently, Ian Jessiman concludes his article with the following remarks:

    … the Plague… had become a reminder of the transience of all aspects of life. It destroyed life, wealth and many towns throughout England, and in common with other disasters, like famine or war, it undermined any assurance we might normally find in family, friends, business and property, or even in government and nation.


Plague in Loughborough 1539–1640

Ian Jessiman, Anne Richmond and Bob Trubshaw

 

Elizabethan Loughborough



 
The streets of Loughborough during the reign of Elizabeth 1 (1558–1603) based on a map in Anne Richmond's Elizabethan Loughborough (published 1992), which used evidence compiled by Wallace Humphrey.


In 1564 Loughborough probably had 256 houses. The shape of the town had changed little in the previous 250 years because during the reign of Edward II (1307–27) there is a record which reads:

    In Loughborough there is a Dede Lane, le Bygging, le Kirkgate, le Woodgate and le Tollbothe.

This contradicts claims that Dede Lane got its name during the Black Death, as the name had been in use for well over two hundred years by then. [At the time Ian was writing part of Dead Lane still survived, but this was built over when The Rushes shopping precinct and car park was constructed 2002–3.]

The antiquarian John Leland (circa 1503–1552) described Loughborough in the early sixteenth century, recording that:

    … most of the houses were made of wood and betraying their various ages by cruck, post and pan, or the slighter timber frame, all with wattle and daub infilling, gleaming plaster and new wood showing evidence of recent extensions, alterations or new erections, for three new ones were built on Bridgeland.

Elizabethan Loughborough was seasonally exceedingly wet. From the south the Woodbrook flowed into the town, entering alongside the Market Place and exiting via The Rushes. Rushes once grew there – a valuable commodity providing excellent roofing material for the houses. The pub still known as The Swan in the Rushes may have given its name to Swan Street, which runs from the market place to The Rushes, although an earlier pub closer to the market place called The Swan seems more likely.

Wealthier Elizabethans in Loughborough lived in Le Kirkegate, now Churchgate. It still retains its original width of about eighteen feet – the average breadth of medieval town streets.

In 1860 a journalist reported an interview with a Loughborough nonogenarian who recalled the recollections of his grandfather who had lived in sixteenth century Loughborough:

    There was a boggy tract within the town lying between the Woodbrook, as it crossed the Ashby Square, and the Market Place. The Woodbrook flowed down the open space, being crossed at different points by a plank bridge with a handrail, and reached the Rushes. Here was another old bog, as the name denotes, with a raised causeway.

    There were two pools of water in the town, one in which is now called Devonshire Square and another where the Woodgate ends.

    Between Loughborough and Shelthorpe there was a raised footway made of huge stones with bridges of planks here and there, where water tended to accumulate. Somewhere near Shelthorpe there was a large pool of water, which remained as late as the middle of the seventeenth century.

This account correlates with the Bridgemaster's accounts, particularly between 1570 and 1595, which itemise much bridging work in and around the town.

Sixteenth century records mention some of the various trades in the town, including a tanner, glove maker, dyer, blacksmith, baker, clothier (who employed a weaver), cooper, rope-maker, barber, mason, glazier, vole and vermin catcher, as well as various shopkeepers and innkeepers.

Mr George Ward was the town's bearward. He was responsible for ensuring that all cattle were baited before slaughter. A heavy fine was imposed for non-compliance.

Stocks, pillory and whipping post stood in the market place, and there may have been a gibbet on Forest Road close to the Blackbrook.

The Plague in Loughborough

Throughout the Middle Ages most of populated Britain suffered sweeping ravages of disease and pestilence. Collectively these epidemics were referred to as 'the plague', although several different infections are now thought to be the cause, some more fatal than others.

(For more background see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bubonic_plague.)

By law from 1538 parish registers were updated weekly with details of births, baptisms and burials. However these are only burials in the churchyard – and there was a reluctance to contaminate them by burying plague corpses. So unregistered burials of plague victims in gardens and fields must mean that parish registers understate mortality rates. In some places epidemics result in the parish registers not being maintained.

Loughborough's parish registers, especially for burials after 1538, are complete (apart from the reign of Mary, 1548–58, when the law on parish registers was ignored nationally) so provide valuable information for statistical analysis.

A total of 1,632 people died in Loughborough in the ten years of epidemic between 1545 and 1631.

There were six 'very bad' years:

    1558–9    332 burials

    1609–11    603 burials

    1631    167 burials

and four 'exceptional' years:

    1543    98 burials

    1577    78 burials

    1602    98 burials

    1617    90 burials

In normal years the highest monthly death rate was during April and May, only rising again in midwinter. In contrast, during plague years deaths during January to April were low while July to October had the highest monthly death rates.

However deaths from the plague in years when famine was reported seem to occur mostly in the spring (usually from March and occasionally until June). For example, Syston parish registers quoted by John Nichols (writing in the late eighteenth century) report the 1602 harvest was exceptionally late (presumably because of a wet summer) which correlates with a peak in deaths in the Loughborough records during 1602 and 1603.

Nichols quotes a second example from the Syston registers:

In 1607 the frost was so hard and so continued that it was after St Valentine's Day [14 February] before men could set forth the plough.

He continues:

In 1609 there dies at Loughborough of the plague in one year 500 people.

Although parish records rarely record people dying of starvation, there is a strong possibility that malnutrition caused by poor, late crops correlates with increased mortality, because of a widespread lowering of resistance to diseases.

Nichols reports that a dreadful plague broke out in Loughborough in August 1609 and raged for eighteen months.

    …this destructive disorder seems to have ended about the 19th February 1610–11 [i.e. old and new style dates; 1611 as we now think], and at that time there had died within the town and parish 452 persons men, women and children; and within a mile of Loughborough is a spot of ground to this day [late eighteenth century] called The Cabin Lees whereon many of the inhabitants prudently built themselves huts and encamped, to avoid infection.

Cabin Lees has been identified as existing in an area known as Bottle Acre. A small housing estate built off Belton Road in the 1990s has a road called Cabin Lees.

Nichols added a footnote to this paragraph 'This circumstance, though recorded by Dr Pochin, Mr Webster informs me is doubtful.' But what is doubtful? That Cabin Lees existed? Or was it built for a different purpose? There is a Liverpool bylaw of 1540 which orders those visited with pestilence to 'depart out of their houses and make their cabins on the heath' in summer (in winter they are to stay at home and keep their doors and windows shut). Similar quarantine measures are known for Berwick, Durham, Nottingham, Shrewsbury, Windsor and York. Possibly Loughborough built an isolation camp on the outskirts of town.

Thanks to Nichols we know that on 17 July 1564 the plague was so severe in Leicester than the assizes were held in Loughborough. Accompanying the Leicester magistrates and clerks were eight convicted felons, who were hanged in the town two days later.

Further evidence suggests that Loughborough was occasionally put into quarantine by local towns. In June 1610 the Rector of Loughborough wrote to the Mayor of Leicester:

    Sir, I understand from a neighbour of mine that it is your desire that I should give warning to my neighbours to keep them from coming to your town of Leicester for the time of the Assizes; with their desire I will by God's help accordingly fulfil only I desire to know whether the restraint must be so general as none of the towns for any cause may come hither with certificate as formally [formerly] they have done. I desire to be informed in law upon an arbitrement which we will put off until some other time if you think that your coming will be offensive to any one. And so thanking you for your care and kindness towards my neighbours in this time of visitation I rest. Your loving friend in Christ assured, John Brown.

In 1631 a further outbreak – not so severe and to be the last major epidemic – caused such concern that the Parson of Loughborough, John Browne (successor and namesake to the John Brown who wrote the letter in 1610) also wrote to the Mayor of Leicester:

    These are to certify whom it may concern that the shattered town of Loughborough is not so dangerous as by some may be considered; in as much as there are only three houses visited by the Plague: being all small tenements, and being in a back lane or place remote from our market place or any common passage, being inhabited by poor people: all attended upon; as well as for relief of the visited as for prevention of danger. And there are dead of the sickness as is supposed only eleven p'sons in all, men, women and children, in the space of seven weeks since first the infection began.

The Mayor was not placated and issued a proclamation forbidding travel between Loughborough and Leicester. He was probably correct to do so – Loughborough's parish registers reveal that John Browne was to bury 135 townspeople before the end of that year (1631).

Nichols reports that the last plague in Loughborough ended in 1648 – although between 20 July 1647 and 25 March 1648 no less than 83 people in Loughborough had died of such infections. Sadly a different disaster may have paved the way for this. On 4th June 1622 a 'grievous fire' had burnt to the ground many of the houses. The town of wooden houses John Leland had described in the sixteenth century was mostly gone. In the place of rat-infested timber-and-thatch dwellings came brick-built dwellings which were much more capable of separating rats (and their pestilences) from human inhabitants. The rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666 likewise correlates closely with the last major plague in that city (and indeed in England) which occurred in 1665.


Sources

Principal sources cited by Ian Jessiman:

Nicholas Griffin, Epidemics in Loughborough (1978)

John Nichols, History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester (1795–1804)

Anne Richmond, Elizabethan Loughborough (1992)

Paul Slack, The Impact of the Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (1985)

E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541–1871 (1981)


Other relevant online sources:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bubonic_plague

Jonathan Wilshere, 'Plague in Leicester 1558–1665', Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaological and Historical Society, Vol.44 (1968–69) pp45–71. Online at www.le.ac.uk/lahs/downloads/1968-69/1968-69%20(44)%2045-71%20Wilshere.pdf

Joan and Peter Shaw, Plague in Cotes. Online at www.lboro-history-heritage.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Plague-in-Cotes.docx

Samuel Pepys' diary entries at the time of the Great Plague in London, 1665. Online at www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4161/pg4161-images.html

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722. Summary online at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Journal_of_the_Plague_Year. Text online at www.gutenberg.org/files/376/376-h/376-h.htm


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