| May 8, 2023

A Starvation Death During the Great Plague of 1665

By Mary Shuman in analysis tagged shuman, food, 1665-1670
A photograph of the bill of mortality for the week of November 14-21, 1665.

Figure 1. A photograph of the bill of mortality for the week of November 14-21, 1665.

On the Bill of Mortality for the week of November 14-21st, 1665, plague deaths were finally decreasing from a horrific summer. The total number of plague deaths was still a staggering six hundred and fifty-two, but that did not stop parish officials from recording all the other ways that Londoners were dying. One death stood out as an intriguing mystery: starved in White Lyon prison at St George in Southwark. Who was this person? Can we figure it out based on online historical sources? Researching the bills of mortality not only gives the stark numbers of death but also opens historical questions about specific outliers in the numbers, like the one starvation death in prison noted amongst hundreds of deaths due to plague. What can the numbers from the Bills of Mortality tell us, and what can they not?

Once the Death By Numbers Project team finishes transcribing deaths into our computational database, it will be easy to analyze starvation deaths for each year or segment of time, like after the great fire in London. However, while this project is still in progress, I had to look directly at digitized images like the one above to determine how many other people died of starvation in the year of the great plague in London. My original assumption was that it would be common to starve to death during the great epidemic due to population loss, food supply, and lack of resources. While looking at each bill on the project for 1665, that assumption was quickly discounted. As John Grant had elucidated for the dates before 1660, few people ever starved to death. “MY first Observation is, That few are starved. This appears, for that of the 229250 which have died, we find not above fifty one to have been starved, excepting helpless Infants at Nurse, which being caused rather by carelesness, ignorance, and infirmity of the Milch-women, is not properly an effect, or sign of want of food in the Countrey, or of means to get it.”1 Listed here are the starvation deaths for 1665.

July 11-18, 1665 London #30
1 starved in Stepney
Stepney parish plague 33, 72 buried.,Plague 1089

August 8 to 15, 1665 London #34
starved at nurse 1, Plague 3880

Sept 26-oct 3, 1665 London #41
starved at nurse (at St. Maudlin in Old Fifthstreet)
8 buried, 6 plague, Plague 4929

One obvious thing to note from these other three starvation deaths was that a location was almost always listed, even during the week of September 26, bill number 41, when close to five thousand people died that week due to plague. For infants starved, did the plague increase the risk of loss of milk with nursing? Was the mother dying as well? While these tragic infant deaths were noted, they are explainable. Starving to death was rare, but by further researching this prisoner’s death, I learned hunger was not rare in London in the fall of 1665.

What was happening in the fall of 1665? The online transcribed diary of Samual Pepys noted the sad state of the plague and recently returned seamen from the Anglo-Dutch war. “Round about and next door on every side is the plague…”2 Pepys was put in charge of feeding the men who had returned from the Anglo-Dutch war and described the experience as such; “Did business, though not much, at the office; because of the horrible crowd and lamentable moan of the poor seamen starving in the streets for lack of money. Which do trouble and perplex me to the heart; and more at noon when we were to go through them, for then a whole hundred of them followed us; some cursing, some swearing, and some praying to us.”3 As the people were starving in the streets, discontent and protest occurred, but one prisoner’s death was still unique and noteworthy to record.

Reviewing this prisoner’s death led my research down a rabbit hole of inquiry into starvation conditions, like in Pepys’ diary and any online information about White Lion prison. The other questions I had were simple: why did this person get such an explanation of the location of this specific prison? What type of prison was the White Lion? What were the conditions at this prison that led someone to starvation? These answers cannot be gleaned from the Bills of Mortality alone, yet they inspired the search for answers. In online research, I discovered White Lion had been a debtors’ prison and a place for religious dissenters.4 The White Lion had living conditions that were even worse than any other prison at the time, which led it to be shut down in 1666. It is possible that the person who died was already ill or malnourished due to the plague in Southwark before imprisonment, or it could be that the prisoner was just neglected by the gaol keeper, which is described as typical for the White Lyon prison.5

Although the mystery of who the person was on number 48 in the Bills of Mortality may remain unsolved, the bills’ transcription data can inspire new research like this about the plague year. By contextualizing the risk of starvation in a year of plague deaths, the data has challenged my previous assumptions about the risk of starving to death during the plague and confirmed the observations made by John Graunt in 1662. Starving to death was rare and noteworthy to record. As the project continues and more information becomes available online, historians can delve deeper into Graunt’s original work and new historical research from the database. It may lead to an investigation like this one into the mystery of one prisoner’s death. The Bills of Mortality project is a crucial resource for understanding the past, and the challenges of surviving during the plague are revealed in its numbers.

  1. Graunt, John, 1620-1674. Natural and Political Observations Mentioned in a Following Index, and made upon the Bills of Mortality by John Graunt … ; with Reference to the Government, Religion, Trade, Growth, Ayre, Diseases, and the several Changes of the Said City. London, 1662. ↩︎

  2. Thursday 5 October 1665 (The Diary of Samuel Pepys) (pepysdiary.com) ↩︎

  3. Saturday 7 October 1665 (The Diary of Samuel Pepys) (pepysdiary.com) ↩︎

  4. “Southwark Prisons,” in Survey of London: Volume 25, St George’s Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington), ed. Ida Darlington (London: London County Council, 1955), 9-21. British History Online, accessed April 20, 2023, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol25/pp9-21↩︎

  5. “The Gaol at the While Lion Inn.” The Gaol at the White Lion Inn - The Institutional History Society↩︎