Hull-istic Medicine: Public Health through Time

The Plague in Hull, 1500-1700

Where did the plague come from?
The plague first appeared in England in the 14th Century and stayed in the country until the 17th Century. During this time the population of the country was cut by half and Hull experienced lots of attacks of the plague. The most well known outbreak of the plague was in the 1660s in London which was believed to have been brought in by infected rats. Bubonic Plague is an infection caused by the bite of a rat flea. In 1635 Hull had its worst attack of the plague, this time it was brought in though by sailors and merchants travelling on ships and it affected all the big ports in Europe at the same time.


What were the symptoms of the plague?
The plague was characterised by boils on the body, mostly under the armpits and around the groin. During the 1635 outbreak in Hull patients also suffered from ‘sweating sickness’. The patients would have extreme chills, followed by extreme sweating and more extreme chills and then sudden death.

What were the typical cures for the plague?
During outbreaks of the plague, public health became a big concern. People were appointed to confiscate (take away from people) ‘unwholesome’ meat (meat that had gone off). Dirty streets and water were making the problems worse and in 1604 a ‘street cleansing and sanitary order’ was put into action. This meant that every Saturday people had to clean filth and dirt from their doors and gardens and the street outside their door. The Mayor of the city asked engineers to look into the supply of water and whether fresher water could be brought into the city. The result was the building of the new water works and a new pipe system under the streets which gave the city fresh and clean drinking water.

Because in the middle ages people weren’t sure what caused the plague and medicine wasn’t very advanced, they tried a lot of home remedies to cure the illness, without realising they needed to get rid of the rats, fleas and infection to stop the disease spreading.


What were the chances of survival?
In the 17th Century outbreak of the plague the town gates were shut and the whole of Hull was placed under quarantine. ‘ The streets were so little frequented, except those that cried out for the dead, that grass grew in most parts between the stones.’ The idea behind this was to stop the disease spreading. Public gatherings were not allowed and churches and schools were shut down.

Although these measures were put in place it is believed that in one year (1637-1638) more than 749 people were buried at Holy Trinity Church.

'Can it be wondered at under the circumstances, that the town became liable to periodic visitations of the plague, the sweating sickness and other frightful diseases, hurrying strong men and women into their graves by scores, where now by the improved sanitary condition of the town, by the introduction of better streets, better drainage, better ventilation, good water and a complete observance of the best rules of sanitation that science has brought bear upon our present age, men and women of our times now drop literally into their graves by units.’ 
Dr J Wright Mason writing in around 1900 (from Patrick, A Plague on You, Sir! L614).

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