Isolation, Containment and Financial Assistance: Parliament’s response to epidemics in the 1640s

In today’s blog Dr Vivienne Larminie, Assistant Editor of our Commons 1640-1660 project, considers self-isolation, social distancing and containing disease in 1640s London. Some of the below may sound quite familiar…

As revealed in our recent blog, when MP and diarist Sir Simonds D’Ewes was faced with the plague in mid-1640s London, he and his wife agreed that she would retreat to the safer countryside while he remained in London, recording with a certain detachment the statistics of disease in the metropolis.  Parliament itself could not afford such apparent phlegmatism.  Over the decade it repeatedly faced crises of public health which demanded decisive action.

Ten months after the opening of the Long Parliament MPs and peers were immersed in business of unprecedented scope and political sensitivity.  In the midst of this, on 6 September 1641 there was a motion in the Lords that, ‘in regard the plague increases in Westminster and London and the suburbs thereof’, a joint select committee of Lords and Commons be appointed to review ‘orders formerly made by the [privy council] and star chamber for the well-ordering of the persons that are infected with the plague, and to prevent the dispersing of the same’ and to make recommendations for amendment and implementation [Journal of the House of Lords iv. 238].  Two days later, on 8 September, a ten-point plan was agreed which combined severe restriction with mitigating charity, and disinfection with concern for communal well-being.  A sign declaring ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ with ‘a large red cross’ was to be affixed to ‘the door of every house visited with the plague’.  Such houses were to be ‘shut up’ at the charge of the occupant, if they could afford it, and their contents ‘well-aired’ before they could be opened again.  No-one could be removed from an afflicted house without the authorisation of the local magistrates; anyone who ‘fled’ would be ‘pursued by hue and cry’ and returned home.  Local taxation was to be adjusted to prevent the poor being ‘turned out into the streets’, while anyone excluding from their households ‘any servant or lodger, being sick’ would be forced either to take them in again or pay for their maintenance elsewhere.  Pavements were to be cleared, ‘the kennels kept sweet and clean, the soil of the streets … carried away, and all annoyances to be removed’ at ratepayers’ expense.  The authorities were given wide-ranging powers to execute orders ‘as occasion shall require’ and to keep themselves safe ‘seeing they hazard their particular safeties to provide for the public’ [Journal of the House of Commons ii. 291].

Engraving of a plague Doctor, c. 1656

On 9 September, following arrangements made earlier in the summer rather than as a direct result of the contagion, Parliament went into recess for six weeks.  But before it did so the Commons delegated William Wheler (the pious MP and Westminster resident previously encountered managing fast days and associated charitable collections) to see that plague regulations were enforced.  During the recess, with the king absent in Scotland and his government run by conciliar officials in London, there was an unprecedented continuation of parliamentary business by a Recess Committee made up of MPs and peers, many of them critics of royal policy, chaired by John Pym and including Wheler.  After Parliament reassembled on 20 October, the public health emergency was still not under control.  The justices of the peace of Westminster, London and Middlesex (Wheler among them) were charged with seeing existing orders ‘strictly put in execution’ [Journal of the House of Commons ii. 295].

In time the disease ebbed away, but the advent of civil war in 1642 and the strains that put on government in general made it more difficult to deal with recurrent flare-ups.  Moreover, the movement of troops in early modern Europe was always associated with increased epidemics, spreading easily in camps and besieged towns.  London did not experience siege conditions, but on 19 June 1643 it came to the attention of the Commons ‘That there are ten houses at Lambeth infected with the Sickness, and no Care taken to prevent their going abroad, nor to take Care of them’.  It took speedy action to impose quarantine.

From time to time, then as now, MPs and peers were voluntarily or forcibly isolated.  In October 1643 Francis Lennard, 14th baron Dacre, offered as an excuse for his not unusual absence from the Lords that the woman with whom he lodged in London ‘was sick of a violent fever, judged to be pestilential’, and ‘on account of the ways, the weather, and his own infirmity’ he requested leave to stay away until he could return ‘without danger of bringing infection’ [Historical Manuscripts Commission 5th Report (1876), 109].  In August 1644 it was decided that since Wiltshire MP Philip Smythe’s wife had ‘lately died of the sickness’, while he and his family were living at the Inner Temple he should keep to his chamber ‘in the day time, and not walk abroad but in the evening’ [Journal of the House of Commons iii. 594].

The indefatigable Wheler was still using his lengthy experience in 1647.  That August he was prominent in getting measures through the House to provide relief for the poor impacted by an epidemic in Cheshire and North Wales.  The same month he and his friend and neighbour Sir Robert Pye were deputed to distribute to the ‘poor visited people of Margaret’s, Westminster’, their home parish, £100 advanced by the Committee of Revenue for their relief.


Further reading:

Journal of the House of Commons at

Journal of the House of Lords at

Biographies of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, Francis Lennard (an MP in the 1650s), Sir Robert Pye, Philip Smythe and William Wheler are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 section, together with articles on the Recess Committee and the Committee of Revenue.

You can find more blogs about Parliament, health and medicine here.

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