Monday, 12 November 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 12 - "The Quality of Mercy," by Barry Unsworth

Eighteenth Century London was the hub of a continually expanding network of global contacts. At its wharves and quays, ships arrived bearing lacquer-ware, porcelain, and tea from China; cotton fabrics from India; tobacco from North America; chocolate from Mexico; coffee and spices from Indonesia; and sugar from the Caribbean; smaller ships brought coal from the north-eastern ports of England, which was increasingly burned as a fuel in London, in preference to wood, the nation's forests having been depleted for the building of ships. The new commercial system was underpinned by innovations in banking, insurance, and corporate governance; but it was also underpinned by something more tangible, yet less visible to most Londoners: the trade in human beings.

Coal merchant's advertisement (image is in the Public Domain).

The Pool of London, by John Wilson Carmichael (image is in the Public Domain).

Advertisement for a coffee house in London (image is in the Public Domain).

Almost every spoonful of sugar consumed in London, and every tot of rum carried on the ships for the benefit of their crew-members, had been produced on plantations in colonies such as Jamaica or Barbados, on the basis of slave-labour. The slaves were Africans, who had been shipped to the Caribbean, often on British ships, with British captains; they were the property of British plantation owners; yet very few of them ever came to Britain itself. Although tens of thousands of ordinary Britons owned shares in companies that formed part of the supply chain, slavery itself was largely out of sight and out of mind.

"Slave Dance," by Dirk Valkenburg, Dutch Brazil (image is in the Public Domain).

May Morning," by John Collet, 1770: Museum of London (image is in the Public Domain). A black servant joins the celebrations: under English law, he would not have been a slave.

From the mid-Eighteenth Century, movements emerged in Europe, committed to the abolition of slavery. Within Britain, these campaigns were often led by Evangelical Christians, and by religious dissenters, including Quakers and, later, Methodists. In 1777, a key ruling at the Old Bailey determined that a fugitive slave who had arrived in England, was a free man, since English law included no provision for the institution of slavery, and that, in the words of Lord Justice Mansfield,  "[slavery] is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law" (in other words, an Act of Parliament, which never actually came to pass).

Portrait of Lord Mansfield's nieces, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Lindsay, Scone Palace, Scotland, 1778 (image is in the Public Domain). Dido was the daughter of a slave mother and a planter father, and lived as a member of Lord Mansfield's household.

Design for an Abolitionist medallion, by Josiah Wedgwood, 1795 (image is in the Public Domain). 

The first book published by an African author in English, 1782 (image is in the Public Domain). Direct testimony by individuals with first-hand experience of slavery played an important part in the Abolitionist movement. 

With so many vested interests, however, the process of abolition was a slow and painful one. Slavery was formally abolished by the newly created French Republic in 1794, but this was revoked by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. In England, William Wilberforce's act of 1807 outlawed the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but British plantation owners continued to make use of slave labour until 1833.

Illustration from Voltaire's "Candide" (widely read across Europe). His protagonist meets a maimed slave in Surinam: "it is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe," the caption reads. Image: Jean-Michel Moreau, 1787 ((image is in the Public Domain).

Barry Unsworth's novel, The Quality of Mercy, is based around an imagined conflict (though closely based on historical circumstances), between a ship-owner, Erasmus Kemp, whose slave-ship has been taken over by its crew,and run aground in Florida; and the abolitionist, Frederick Ashton, who accuses Kemp of insurance fraud (in claiming for the value of slaves allegedly thrown overboard on the orders of the Captain), and seeks to demonstrate, in the courts, that, as human beings, the slaves had never been Ashton's lawful property. The situation is complicated by a love-interest between Kemp and Ashton's sister; and by the position of Sullivan, the ship's Irish fiddler, one of the few men who might actually know what happened on the ship, and who is, unbeknown to Kemp or Ashton, making his way on foot to a mining community in County Durham, with a message for the family of a murdered ship-mate.

"On finding himself thus accidentally free, Sullivan's only thought was to get as far as he could from Newgate prison while it was still dark. Fiddle and bow slung over his shoulders, he set off northwards, keeping the river at his back. In Holborn he lost an hour, wandering in a maze of courts. Then an old washer-woman, waiting outside a door in the first light of day, set him right for Gray's Inn Lane and the northern outskirts of the city ... An hour's walking brought him to the rural edges of London, among the market gardens and brick kilns north of Gray's Inn Road ... At a junction of lanes here was a huddle of houses and a small inn. He was hungry but he did not dare to stop. One way led to Watford the other to St Albans. He took a shilling from his new purse and tossed it. It came down heads. St Albans then."

"'I had hoped the business might be settled privately between us,' Van Dillen said. 'The outcome must be doubtful in law and if we go to the extent of a hearing there are costs to be thought of. Why should we fatten the lawyers, Mr Kemp?' He was not finding the interview easy. He was physically uncomfortable, for one thing; the seat of his chair was too small for a man of his bulk, and the weather was unseasonably hot. The room had only one window, and the morning sun, strong despite the clogging air of London, slanted through it and lay directly on him. He felt overheated in his bob-wig and broadcloth suit ... He felt an itch on the side of his neck, some insect crawling there ... the windless days and early heat had produced a plague of small black beetles that flew about blindly, getting tangled in wigs and snared in the corner of eyes, copulating and dying, leaving a scurf of corpses ... 'What can be predicted are the legal costs,' Van Dillen said. 'My good sir, the facts are not in dispute, at least as regards the central fact of the Negroes being cast overboard and the necessity thereof.' 'It is precisely the necessity of it that the insurers will dispute if it comes before a court."

"Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying," by J.M.W. Turner, 1840, Museum of Fine Art, Boston, 1840 (image is in the Public Domain). Slavery was already illegal in British territories at this time, but Turner was campaigning for its global abolition.

"The insurance claim on eighty-five African slaves, cast overboard while still alive from the deck of the 'Liverpool Merchant' on grounds of lawful jettison, was heard at the Guildhall, Justice Blundell presiding. In contrast to the long course of postponements and delays that preceded it, the hearing itself was brief, occupying no more than three hours of the court's time. The insurers were represented by an elderly lawyer named Price, who had a large experience of such cases. Kemp's lawyer, Pike, had wished to hold his fire for the criminal trial at the Old Bailey, which was due to be held at a date not yet specified; he had recommended a young barrister named Waters to represent the ship's owner."      

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 11 - "The Fatal Tree," by Jake Arnott

The London that endured the Great Plague of 1665 was largely swept away, the following year, by the Great Fire of London. Although blamed, at the time, on foreign or Catholic agents provocateurs, the fire was, in fact, an accident; the inevitable consequence of the growth of a city of timber-framed buildings with thatched roofs. The new city that sprung up in its place was built, largely, of brick, stone, and tile, and had, as its centre-piece, Sir Christopher Wren's bold new design for Saint Paul's Cathedral, as controversial a piece of architecture in its time as anything built by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, or Renzo Piano in our own times. 

London in 1751, by Thomas Bowles (image is in the Public Domain).

London was still growing, its population swelling from an estimated 200 thousand in 1600; to 600 thousand in 1700; and 959 thousand by 1801; an increase fueled mainly by migration from the British countryside. Members of the aristocracy were, increasingly, spending part of the year "in town," attracted by a "social season" that included performances of Shakespearean plays and Italian opera; and the life of the coffee-house, which combined business with pleasure. Many poorer people were attracted to the city by the new opportunities in domestic service and the retail trade, but social mobility operated in both directions, downwards, as well as upwards: a servant, apprentice, or shop-worker who lost his or her position (including women who became pregnant, who were almost invariably dismissed) had few options open to them apart from prostitution or crime.

John Roque's map of London, 1741-45 (image is in the Public Domain).

"The Rake at the Rose Tavern," by William Hogarth, Sir John Soane's Museum. The anti-hero of the series (The Rake's Progress), Tom Rakewell, is here being relieved of his watch by a prostitute.

"The Rake in Prison," by William Hogarth, Sir John Soane's Museum.

In a city without a Police force, the fear of crime was real, and ever-present, and the authorities responded with harsher and harsher penalties. In 1688, there were fifty offences listed as being punishable by death; by 1776, there were almost two hundred; by 1799, two hundred and twenty. Prostitutes and pickpockets feared both the cells of Newgate Prison, and the "triple-tree" of the Tyburn gallows, where Marble Arch stands today.

Newgate Prison, 1780 plan by the architect, Charles Dance.

The Inner Court of Newgate Prison in the 18th Century (image is in the Pubic Domain).

Newgate Prison in 1902, prior to its demolition (image is in the Public Domain).

Newgate Prison in 1902.

Tyburn in 1680, National Archives WORK 16/376 (image is in the Public Domain).

The City authorities employed "Under-Marshals" to keep law and order, and to apprehend & prosecute criminals, but, heavily dependent on testimonies from within the criminal community, the opportunities for, and temptations of, corruption were manifest and manifold. The most notorious example was the self-styled "Thief-Taker General," Jonathan Wild, who was himself hanged at Tyburn in May, 1725.

Ticket for the public execution of Jonathan Wild (image is in the Public Domain).

Prison scene from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), which satirises both the legal and political situations of the day, by William Hogarth (1728), Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain).

Jake Arnotts novel, The Fatal Tree, follows the criminal careers of Elizabeth Lyon ("Edgworth Bess"), and her lover, the burglar, Jack Sheppard. These were real people (Sheppard was hanged in 1724; Lyon was transported to Maryland), and Arnott has made extensive use of the records of trials at the Old Bailey: his Bess narrates her own story, using the "Canting" patois known to have been used by prostitutes and criminals in Eighteenth Century London), which is interspersed with the commentary of William Archer, a fictional journalist (addressed to his editor) with personal and criminal secrets of his own.

Jack Sheppard, by James Thornhill, 1724 (image is in the Public Domain).

Elizabeth Lyon:

"I was born in the small town of Edgworth, some ten miles north of London, the year Queen Anne came to the throne.If any seek significance as to why the place of my birth was later to provide my notorious alias, they might note that the old Roman road from thee makes one straight line to London, without a single turn or bend in it, and ends directly where Tyburn now stands. So this as my swift journey from innocence and, in truth, I was headed for the gallows of that wicked city too soon and far too young ... ".

"Arriving in London I felt a fierce assault on all my senses: the bewildering parade of  people and carriages in the streets, the mad bustle of business, the shriek and clatter of its traffic. And the stench! Scattered heaps of filth, dead fish and offal, dung everywhere. Ragged beggars clamoured at every corner. I held my little bundle  close and made to walk in a manner that might show I knew my way. But I was hopelessly lost."

"It was dark as we left the coffee-house, and the lamps of the link-boys glowed here and there, marking out a constellation across the cobbled piazza. One of the theatres had just emptied its crowd, an now a boisterous audience set forth to make its own drama. We passed the column with its sundials and gilded sphere. On its steps women sat selling hot milk and barley broth. I was led up a side-street to a quiet and respectable-looking terrace. 'Welcome to our house of civil reception,' said Punk Alice, as she ushered me up some steps to the front door. As we entered, a surly footman roused himself from a chair in the hallway. 'Fetch Mother,' Alice snapped at him, and he skulked off to some back-parlour."

William Archer:

"Dear Applebee, Thank you for the ten guineas received on account and your comments on the text. You rightly protest that many will complain of the possible corrupting influence of this story, that Bess rather flaunts her bodily crimes and pleads little for the mercy of her soul. But you know as well as any that this might be her final whoring and could well be a draw to the public. From a shadow-world a shadow-gospel is rendered: the flesh made word where only the intoxication of sin can be offered as mitigation. And though I'm sure that the idle reader may appreciate this, it is to be hoped that when her case comes up before the next sessions she can deliver a better defence than that. But, then, you know the old jest about a jade who plied her trade by the Temple: that if she had as much law in her head as she had in her tail, she would be one of the ablest counsels in England."    

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Streets of Old Westminster: From Thorney Island to Parliament Square

A visitor to London, exploring the City of Westminster, and walking northward along Millbank from Vauxhall Bridge towards Parliament Square, crosses an invisible line, somewhere between Millbank Tower (the tallest building along the route) and Thames House (the headquarters of the domestic security service, MI5), marking the southern edge of Thorney Island. Thorney island was an eyot or ait: an island formed by the deposition of sediments, often at the confluence of two rivers, in this case the Thames and the Tyburn, the latter flowing south from Hampstead through what is now Saint James's Park (archaeologists from the Museum of London have recently been studying the course of the now largely invisible River Tyburn, and the results of their researches can be seen here).

Thorney Island. Photo:

Bush Eyot, on the River Thames in Berkshire, gives an impression of what Thorney Island might have looked like before it was built upon. Photo: Nancy (licensed under CCA). 

There are records of a church having been built on the island as early as the Seventh Century AD, by Mellitus, Bishop of London, an Italian Benedictine who came to England as part of the mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great, under Saint Augustine, to Christianise the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Palace of Westminster, Parliament Square, and Westminster Abbey all stand on what was once Thorney Island, chosen by the later Anglo-Saxon Kings as the royal centre of London, some distance to the west (and, importantly, upstream) from the bustling (and frequently noisy and malodorous) commercial port and City.

Conjectural reconstruction of Thorney Island in the reign of King Henry VIII, with the Palace of Westminster (foreground), Westminster Hall (centre), Westminster Abbey (top), and Saint Margaret's Church (to the right of the abbey). H.J. Brewer, 1884 (image is in the Public Domain).

Almost opposite the Sovereign's Entrance to the House of Lords is the Jewel Tower, built in the Fourteenth Century, on the orders of King Edward III. As its name suggests, it was intended to house valuable items of Royal regalia. Its foundations, as revealed by archaeologists, testify to its original position on the shores of a tidal islet, prone to flooding.

The Jewel Tower. Photo: lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

The foundations of the Jewel Tower, with oak sleepers resting on elm piles. Photo: Tracey and Doug (licensed under CCA).

The Palace of Westminster that we see today was built by the Nineteenth Century architects, Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, following a disastrous fire in 1834. The first palace on the site, however, was built by King Edward the Confessor, in the Eleventh Century, its position on an island presumably providing an element of security. Among the earliest elements to survive is Westminster Hall, built in 1097, and then the largest hall in Europe. Its wooden roof was commissioned by King Richard II, in 1393, from the Royal Carpenter, Hugh Herland. The hall, which saw (among many others) the trials of Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes, and King Charles I; together with other parts of the Parliamentary Estate, can be visited by the public when Parliament is in Recess.

Parliament Square from the London Eye, showing the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster (left), Saint Margaret's Church (centre left), and Westminster Abbey (centre). Photo: Tebbetts (image is in the Public Domain).

Westminster Hall in 1808, by Thomas Rowlandson & Augustus Pugin (image is in the Public Domain).

Penny of King Edward the Confessor. Photo: Rasiel Suarez (licensed under CCA). 

Parliament Square, in its current form, was laid out in 1868. Around it are statues of prominent statesmen (Churchill, Palmerston, Disraeli, Sir George Canning, Sir Robert Peel, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi), and, the most recent addition, the Womens' Suffrage campaigner, Millicent Fawcett.

Parliament Square. Photo: wjh31 (image is in the Public Domain).

Statue of Millicent Fawcett, Parliament Square. Photo: Garry Knight (licensed under CCA).

On the west side of Parliament Square is the Supreme Court, formerly Middlesex Guildhall, built between 1912 and 1913; and, on the south side, Saint Margaret's Church (established in the Twelfth Century but rebuilt in the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Centuries); and Westminster Abbey, the burial place of English monarchs throughout the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period, and the scene of coronations from the time of William the Conqueror down to the present day.

At the same time as he was building the first Royal Palace on Thorney Island, King Edward the Confessor re-modeled the old Benedictine monastery, established by Bishop Mellitus, into a Royal Church, in which he, and his wife, Edith, would ultimately be buried. The number of monks increased dramatically over the following decades, with the "Abbey of Saint Peter" (its official title throughout the Middle Ages) becoming one of the great landowners of England by the time of the Domesday survey of 1087. Much of the City of Westminster is built on land that once belonged to the monks, supplying them with wool and leather for their clothing; meat, cheese, fruit, and vegetables to eat; and milk and ale to drink (the abbey had, by this stage, been taken within the pan-European Cluniac family, whose monks, often with close aristocratic and royal connections, ate and drank very well).

The body of King Edward the Confessor being carried to the Abbey of Saint Peter, from the Bayeux Tapestry (image is in the Public Domain).

Most of the abbey that we see today dates from the rebuilding that began under King Henry III, in 1245, although each successive generation, including our own, has made its mark on the fabric of the building.

The Figures of Twentieth Century Martyrs, above the West Door of Westminster Abbey. Photo: Dnalor_01 (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The Streets of Old Westminster: Millbank - the North Bank of the Thames

A visitor to London, having explored the Borough of Lambeth, and arrived back at Vauxhall Bridge, can cross the bridge into the western end of the City of Westminster. The street that now bears the name of Millbank (after a Medieval tidal mill, owned by the Benedictine monks of Saint Peter's, otherwise known as Westminster Abbey) follows the northern (or "Middlesex") bank of the River Thames, between Chelsea and the Houses of Parliament. The modern view, as one walks across the bridge, is dominated by the Neoclassical facade of the Tate Britain art gallery.

Tate Britain. Photo: Adrian Pingstone (image is in the Public Domain). 

Those who have been following these perambulations from the outset may have realised, by now, that we are traveling around Greater London somewhat in the manner of Henri Matisse's "Snail" (a work, incidentally, that I first saw, as a teenager, in this gallery, but which now hangs in the Tate Modern), having visited the City of London, crossed the river into Southwark and Lambeth, and now crossing it once again to visit Westminster.

"Snail," by Henri Matisse, 1953, Tate Modern (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols).

We have already encountered the sugar magnate, Henry Tate, at his one-time home in Streatham, and it was he who gave his name to the art gallery, having paid for its construction. The gallery opened to the public in 1897, an is now linked by a shuttle-boat service to its sister-gallery at Bankside, a great way to see the waterfronts of the Thames in the boroughs that we have been exploring. In Atterbury Street, on the side of the gallery, can be seen the scars of German bombing raids in 1940 and 1941.

Bomb damage on the wall of Tate Britain. Photo: (licensed under GNU).

Both the gallery, and the adjacent Chelsea College of Art and Design (previously the headquarters of the Royal Army Medical Corps) were built on the site of a earlier prison. In fact, there had been a prison camp in the marshes here since the time of the Battle of Worcester (1651), with defeated Royalists being held here by Parliamentary forces prior to being sent for hard labour in Britain's overseas colonies. By the time that Samuel Pepys was writing his famous diary, this had been abandoned, and he records "Tothill Fields" as "a low, marshy locality," suitable for shooting snipe (not a bird that one commonly sees in the area today).

Chelsea College of Art and Design, built in 1907 as the headquarters of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Photo: Entangle (licensed under CCA).

Ordnance Survey Map of 1912 (image is in the Public Domain).

The more famous Millbank Prison, which functioned from 1816 to 1890, and which was demolished prior to the construction of the gallery and college, was closely associated with the transportation of convicts to Australia, since it was here that most of the prisoners were held before being loaded into barges and taken downstream to the ships that would carry them away. Although much of the literature (both fictional and non-fictional) inspired by these journeys have emphasised the hardships endured by the convicts (which were certainly real enough), it was intended, at least in part, as a more humane alternative to the gallows.

"Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking their leave of their lovers, who are going to Botany Bay," by Robert Sayer, 1792. National Library of Australia (image is in the Public Domain).

The prison itself was originally conceived by the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1747-1832), as part of a utopian scheme for the management, and ultimate reform, of offenders, but his panopticon design (intended to ensure surveillance of prisoners at all times, at minimum expense) proved to be impractical, and was never actually built. Instead, the prison became a byword for squalor and contagion, and few voices were raised to lament its demolition.

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (image is in the Public Domain).

Bentham's "Panopticon" design, 1791 (image is in the Public Domain).

Plan of Millbank Prison, as actually built, G.P. Holford, 1828 (image is in the Public Domain).

Millbank Prison, 1829, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (image is in the Public Domain).

The burial ground at Millbank Prison, 1862 (image is in the Public Domain).

Today, the path that follows the north bank of the Thames, as we walk towards Parliament Square, is pleasantly shaded by plane trees on the river-side; with the offices of government departments and political parties on the other side of the road; and little evidence remaining of those who passed this way en route for the most uncertain of futures.

Millbank Tower from Vauxhall. Photo: Iridescenti (licensed under GNU).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 10 - "A Journal of the Plague Year," by Daniel Defoe.

In 1663, news first reached London of a plague that had been devastating the city of Amsterdam. The extensive trade links between England (especially London) and the Netherlands (most significantly Amsterdam) made it more or less inevitable that the sickness would, in time, make its way to these shores. The plague (both bubonic and pneumonic) was no stranger to Londoners: there had been periodic outbreaks over a period of more than three centuries, the most serious, by far, being the "Black Death" of 1347-8, which wiped out somewhere between a third and a half of the population of England, and set the ground for fundamental social and economic change.

The Great Plague of London, 1665 (image is in the Public Domain).

The most recent strain of the plague reached London in the autumn and winter of 1664-5, and raged through the summer of the latter year. Many of the City's wealthier citizens fled into the countryside; as did King Charles II and his court, settling first in Salisbury, and later in Oxford. There was only a limited window of time in which such escape was possible: as soon as the news of the plague spread to the rural districts, the people of the countryside became unwilling to accommodate their urban neighbours, or even allow them to pass. 

The Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Lawrence, and most of the Aldermen, had, in any case, opted to remain, and to oversee the City's defences against the unseen killer. Between the, they saw to it that the dead were buried; that regular "Bills of Mortality" were published; and that those known to be suffering from the disease were quarantined in their homes to prevent the spread of contagion.

Bill of Mortality (image is in the Public Domain).

Bill of Mortality (image is in the Public Domain).

A Plague Doctor (image is in the Public Domain): the "beak" held aromatic plants, believed to stave off contagion. Seventeenth Century doctors could, in fact, do nothing to help patients suffering from the plague, although they could, and did, record the progress of the disease in such a way as to improve the understanding of the process of infection.  

Ultimately, the disease would kill around 100,000 people (roughly a quarter of London's population), and it would disappear almost as suddenly as it had fallen upon the City. The role of the following year's Great Fire of London in destroying what remained of the disease has probably been over-stated: it seems, rather, that he disease had simply completed its life-cycle. The over-land trade routes that connected the Mediterranean world with the Far East, and along which the plague seems originally to have spread into Europe, were, by this time, in decline, replaced by the maritime routes around the southern tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean, that were being opened up by Portuguese and Dutch navigators.

Daniel Defoe's book, A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, has often been seen as a work of non-fiction reportage. It is written in the first person, and appears to be a detailed eyewitness account, but can hardly be so, since Defoe had been just five years old in 1665. The account is credited to "H.F." (possibly Defoe's Uncle, Henry Foe, on whose reminiscences the author may have relied). Although Defoe has sometimes been cited as the first English novelist (John Bunyan and Aphra Behn arguably have stronger claims), those making this suggestion have generally had in mind Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). Recently however, A Journal of the Plague Year has itself been reconsidered as a novel (and, indeed, a historical novel, since it was written fifty-seven years after the events that it describes took place. Writers of Defoe's generation had yet to agree on a clear definition of what a novel actually was, but this account, though clearly rooted in detailed empirical research, has a number of the features that we might recognise as typical of the novel, including characters (though not many of them), and dialogue (though not very much of it). As such, it gives a fascinating insight, not only into London life during the Great Plague, but also into the embryology of the historical novel in English.

Daniel Defoe, possibly after Sir Godfrey Kneller, National Maritime Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

"It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods that were brought home from their Turkey fleet; others said that it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again."

London in 1665, by Wenceslas Hollar (image is in the Public Domain).

" ... now the weather set in hot, an from the first week in June the infection spread in a dreadful manner, and the bills rose high; the articles of the fever, spotted fever, and teeth began to swell; for all that could conceal their distempers did it, to prevent their neighbours shunning and refusing to converse with them, and also to prevent authority shutting up their houses; which, though it was not yet practised, yet was threatened, and people were extremely terrified at he thoughts of it ...  I lived without Aldgate, about midway between Aldgate Church and Whitechapel Bars on the left hand or north side of the street; and as the distemper had not reached to that side of the city, our neighbourhood continued very easy. But at the other end of the town their consternation was very great: and the richer sort of people ... thronged out of town with their families and servants ... this was a very terrible and melancholy thing to see, and ... it filed me with very serious thoughts of the misery that was coming upon the city, and the unhappy condition of those that would be left in it."

"I say they had dug several pits in another ground, when the distemper began to spread in our parish, and especially when the dead-carts began to go about, which was not, in our parish, till he beginning of August. Into these pits they had put perhaps fifty or sixty bodies each; then they made larger holes wherein they buried all that the cart brought in a week, which, by the middle to end of August, came to from 200 to 400 a week; and they could not well dig them larger, because of the order of the magistrates confining them to leave no bodies within six feet of the surface; and the water coming on at about seventeen or eighteen feet ...

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.