‘A man suddenly in Rosemary Lane’ 8th May,1665.
This anonymous man dying ‘suddenly’ in east London’s Rosemary Lane (re-christened Royal Mint Street), has the dubious distinction of being the first recorded, unnamed victim of the infamous Great Plague of 1665 as pictured above: (oil painting on board by Rita Greer, history painter, 2009).
When the fast-spreading disease hit London that scorching summer with around one hundred deaths every three to four days, those who could afford to do so, fled the city for the countryside. Protecting oneself from this invisible horror became a fixation. Trades people who valued their life more than their money, locked up their premises and posted a hasty sign;
“Closed at the Behest of the Dreaded Plague”
The majority, with no choice but to stay in affected areas, would struggle to maintain bonfires night and day in the belief that only the power of fire could swallow the stench and eat this evil pestilence knocking at their door. Children would be encouraged to sniff sponges soaked in vinegar and even take up smoking, actively encouraged by “plague doctors”. (Note: Greer’s painting above depicts a plague doctor with the distinctive beak mask of Italian origin (Il Medico della Peste ) which was stuffed full of herbs soaked in perfume to combat the foul air – the so-called miasma theory of protection)
No one could possibly know that knocking at their door was something so virulent, that once the headaches began and the swelling armpits, groin and neck were accompanied by vomiting and fever, death was likely to be only a few weeks away. The flea that infected them with its tiny bite merely continued doing what it was designed to do – cosy in its home, deep in the fur of black rats, scurrying around delivering the bacteria Yersinia pestis in exchange for blood. Ironically the slaughter of cats and dogs thought responsible, allowed the plague-carrying rats and their tiny passengers to increase in numbers.
The countryside was seen as a safe haven by many who could afford to rent or buy a cottage, thereby isolating themselves from the contamination – or so they thought. Although the spread of the bacteria was slower – it was still moving around thanks to its efficient black rat transportation system.
Slowly, but surely, the disease reached out its putrefying hand and claimed victim after victim, supplementing this horrifying bubonic plague with pneumonic plague attacking the lungs, and spread through sneezing. For some, the diagnosis was septicaemic plague, as the bacteria entered the blood stream.
Plague pits became a common feature everywhere, each county burying its dead in designating areas where bodies were slaked with lime to speed the process of rotting and disintegration.
As fire, lime and country air were not enough to halt the plague’s steady progress, so grew the practice of using vinegar bowls. Outside your farm or cottage you would arrange a stone bowl, or sometimes a small trough filled with vinegar.
All the money that you owe a local tradesman would be placed in the vinegar filled receptacle, so it could be taken out by those delivering your milk, eggs and bread etc, hopefully cleansed from plague contamination. Any change would be left in the bowl for your later collection or merely to soak until needed again.
At this time, in the Buckinghamshire village of Priestwood (now Prestwood) in the long lost Back Lane, was sited one cottage and two farms, Greenland Farm and Hampden Farm.
The cottage is no longer there, but a farm building remains to this day in what is known as Greenlands Lane. Also to be seen, close to Hampden Farm, set in an old brick, flint and stone wall, is an original plague vinegar bowl.
The wall is near the old footpath that would have led you straight to the small thatched cottage, but the vinegar bowl is very easy to miss. It retired many centuries ago from performing its battle with the plague virus and is now overgrown with ivy. But if you take the time to part the dense leaves carefully, you can, if you concentrate, just make out what appears to be a worn, skull-like, leering face indelibly etched in the darkly stained stone at the back of the bowl.
Not everyone, it must be confessed, can see it however long they stare. But be warned, whatever you do, do not place your hand into its depths, for this vinegar bowl is said to be haunted.
Long after the plague had been swept away and the vinegar had dried to a dark crimson stain, it still came in useful for leaving the milkman a note and his weekly milk money. So its life continued, hands going in and out exchanging money and messages.
One stormy Monday morning on May 8th 1865, the local horse-drawn milk cart clattered its way down the muddy track to the cottage footpath. Bill Cherry, a cheerful man whatever the weather, whistled as he reined in his horse alongside the bowl.
Admittedly, the facts are a little confusing about the events that followed, but there is no doubt, as the weather records tell us, that a fierce, freak thunderstorm broke out across the morning sky. Ferocious jagged lightning cast an eerie glow across a still visible moon, its fingers pointing out a destructive path, breaking boughs and crackling threateningly around the thatched roofs and stable yards.
Bill’s horse started nervously at what The Times newspaper was later to describe as, “…incessant and vivid lightning, followed by peals of thunder of corresponding intensity.” Bill’s calming voice quickly settled her, “..hold steady girl, we’ll soon be away and warm.”
Still whistling, Bill clambered down from the cart, grabbed the dispensing churn and ladle from the back and, as if impervious to the sudden lashing rain, measured out his milk delivery into the waiting cottage urn. The lightning continued in its fury.
Bill quickly placed the churn and ladle back on board and automatically reached into the vinegar bowl for his money.
At that very moment, a bolt of lightning shot its jagged arm towards the very same spot. It lit up the leering, evil face etched on the inside stone of the bowl. Bill had never even noticed this before and he felt uneasy. His horse reared up terrified and, as he glanced away quickly to calm her, he felt his hand being grabbed and squeezed as if in a vice.
Crying out in pain, he tried to pull away from the vinegar bowl, but to no avail. A second flash of lightning then revealed the horror he was never to forget.
A withered, festering, putrid hand, as if from a corpse, was clasped around his in a bizarre handshake. His own hand was slowly but surely being pulled down into the bowl, his fingers crushed and in agony.
Then, as suddenly as it began, his hand was freed. He screamed in relief and bewilderment, leaping onto his cart and shouting, “In God’s name go girl, GO, for God’s sake, GO.”
The terrified horse needed no encouragement and flew; the milk churns falling and rolling from the cart as they escaped. Bill’s mind was in a turmoil.
It was true that later that morning when the storm had cleared, several of Bill’s churns were found strewn about the lane. It was also true that he had neglected to collect his money from the bowl that morning. But even more strange, was the addition of two farthing traders’ tokens lying amongst the milk money. They bore the date 1665, an engraving of a set of scales and the name of the trader called Mealeman.
[Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS)]
They also bore the designation, Rosemary Lane in London’s east end.
It was also true that from that day onward, after a terrified Bill had told his tale, his mental state deteriorated so he was no longer able to work. He took to sitting in his cottage mumbling, the fingers on his right hand weeping raw stumps.
This was not from any disease as far as anyone could tell, but hour after hour, day after day and year after year, Bill tried every means to scrub them clean from the putrid stench that was always with him. He was literally rubbing his fingers away. The strange thing was that no one else could smell it, but Bill took no heed and it always seemed to him to be much worse in the early summer, especially in May.
May 8th to be exact, Bill’s birthday.
Bill had not always lived in the country; in fact he was born in East London.
In Rosemary Lane to be precise.