When London Faced a Pandemic—And a Devastating Fire

In 1665 and 1666, a city experienced two enormous tragedies: the Great Plague in London and the Great Fire in London. The plague killed around 15-20% of the city’s population, while the fire burned about a quarter of the metropolis of London, leaving around 100,000 people homeless. And although the city only officially recorded a small number of fire deaths, the actual number of deaths was probably quite high.

Humans often want to find a silver lining in the midst of a disaster, and a myth that has arisen around these twin tragedies is that the great fire ended the great plague by chasing away the rats that spread the disease.

READ MORE: Pandemics that have changed history

“I was raised with this myth,” says Adrian Tinniswood, senior researcher in history at the University of Buckingham, England, and author of By heaven’s permission: the story of the great fire. “It was the kind of standard school speech in the 60s when I was young.”

The great plague from 1665 to 1666

The great plague from 1665 to 1666 graphic

A grpah showing the death rate during the Great Plague in London from 1665-1666. The solid line shows the total number of deaths and the broken line deaths attributed to the plague.

The Great Plague was the last major plague epidemic in London, a bacterial infection caused by Yersinia pestis. The epidemic began in late winter or early spring 1665. By the time King Charles II fled the city in July, the plague was killing about 1,000 people a week. The death rate peaked in September when 7,165 people died within a week.

Officially, the city has recorded 68,596 deaths from the Great Plague, and the actual death toll may have exceeded 100,000. Most of these deaths were due to bubonic plague, a form of plague that spread by fleas on small mammals. In London, the main carriers were rats. (In the United States, where the plague has probably existed for a The 1900 epidemic in San Francisco, squirrels and prairie dogs can and do transmit the plague to humans.)

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