Stamford and the Plague, 1604

Aubrey Plowman

The following article written by Aubrey Plowman, first appeared in issue 4 of the Stamford Historian in 1980. It grew out of the Stamford Survey Group's project on population changes in Stamford from the middle of the 16th century to the early 19th century.  The article describes in vivid terms the greatest plague to hit Stamford during this period. It also provides an interesting example of how parish registers can be used to build up a picture of how the plague developed and spread  within the town.


Stamford and the Plague 1604
Author’s note:
The events set out in the following pages took place in Stamford over 450 years ago and, unpleasant though the subject-matter be, the fact that no previous detailed account of it has been made makes it necessary to record it, in order that another small segment of the town’s history can be fitted into its rightful place.
It would have been quite easy to have reduced the article to cold statistics, but I decided against this on the grounds that what happened in the year in question involved people – our ancestors.  Further, I have used someone’s ancestor to help me in this attempt to recreate a picture of events of that tragic year of 1604.
The months of the year used in this account are based on the modern calendar and not that of the period, hence the references in the history books to 1603 as being the year of the plague.
                                                                                                                                  Aubrey R Plowman
An entry in the baptism register of the parish church of St Michael’s Stamford, for the year 1579, reads, ‘John Eame was born at St. Leonard’s in the plague time’.  A vague statement, but then, at the time it was written, the parish clerk would not assume that further comment was necessary. The reference however is probably to the outbreak of plague that took place in the town four years earlier, in 1575.
Many things are said to have plagued man, but perhaps the only true plague was the ‘Black Death’ or bubonic plague.  Its origins have never been clearly defined, but at least three pandemics of plague have ravaged vast areas of the world, leaving many millions dead in their wake and causing the social and economic structures of whole continents to collapse.
It raged through Britain and Ireland about the fourth century, known then as the ‘Plague of Cadwalader’s time’. The second pandemic was that of the Middle Ages, ‘The Black Death’of 1348-50.
In the late nineteenth century, it was active again; in India, as many as four million perished. It made an attempt to gain a foothold in this country in the early 1900s but without success, and mercifully claimed only a handful of victims.
The plague of the Middle Ages was the largest and most protracted of these pandemics.  The disease itself arrived in Britain from France during the summer of 1348.  For two years it raged unchecked, leaving towns and villages devastated.  In the spring and summer of 1349 it probably carried off about one in three of the population in Stamford.
The ‘Black Death’ was at its peak from 1348 to 1349, but it was to be another three hundred years before this country would see itself free of this dreaded disease.  In the 150 years before 1665, there were only a dozen years in which London was free of plague.  In 1603 30,000 dies in a great outbreak of plague in the capital city, and throughout this period, generation after generation would come to accept the plague as just another burden to contend with in the continual struggle for survival.
With man’s ability to adapt himself to living with the constant threat of the plague, it would be reasonable to assume that when, at the beginning of February in the year 1604, a death from plague was reported in Stamford, very few of those who were aware of the fact would be unduly alarmed or concerned at the news.
If indeed the townsfolk in general were not too worried about this particular death, this was not quite the attitude taken by the town’s officials.  For the plague had already threatened, or even perhaps been present in the town for some months, although this was apparently its first victim.  At a meeting of the council members on the second December 1603, it was agreed that a
  ‘Cabbin should be erected and built where persons infected with the sickness called the ‘Plague’
   should be kepte and mayneteyned and that for the charges thereof, the fourthe part of a
   fifteen should be presently collected and gathered’
(i.e. for the living plague victims). Such action may have been in anticipation of the plague arriving in the town, for it precedes the first recorded plague by at least two months. The cabin can be seen marked on Speed’s map of 1610. 
One who might have been aware of the circumstances regarding that death was Reginald Waters, doctor and gent’, but although the death took place within his own parish, it is probable that he did not pay a great deal of attention to the matter.  Why should he?  Although a death caused by the plague was not an every-day event, it certainly wasn’t all that rare.  The plague had been claiming victims for as long as he could remember, although there had been nothing serious in the town for some years past.  A few deaths had been attributed to the disease in 1581, but not since September 1575 had these been a serious epidemic, and even that outbreak had not been widespread.  And in any case, Reginald Waters, no doubt, had far more interesting and important matters to think about.
The period 1603-4 came to be very important in the life of Reginald Waters. He, like others of his time, had already experienced his share of calamitous moments. His first wife had dies in 1594; he re-married the following year, but their first-born, Dorothy, lived only for 17 months. However, the past few years had seen things change for the better, and he now had two sons, John and William, aged five and three respectively.  He lived a fairly comfortable life, with servants to tend his needs. And now a further momentous event took place; he had been elected Alderman of the town.
To hold a position of authority in the town was nothing new to Reginald Waters.  He was admitted as a freeman in 1588 and in 1589 was elected to the council, but was dismissed in 1590; he was re-elected in 1598 and remained in office until his elevation to Alderman in this year of 1604.
The duties required of an Alderman kept Reginald Waters quite active.  The town had lost a lot of its former prestige in the fields of commerce and learning, but had not fallen completely into a backwater.  Assistance in preventing this fate came chiefly from the town’s close association with the Cecil family particularly Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s Lord High Treasurer of England. There were also the town’s connections with the Fens, the use of the river Welland and the Great North Road, all factors that helped in keeping the town alive.  And also, there are indications that, since 1595, the population was once more on the increase.
So most of Alderman Waters’ day was routine: meetings of civic or charity committees and entertaining of visiting dignitaries.  And there was always the hope of more worthy tasks.  His predecessor William Salter – now the town clerk – had attended upon King James, passing through the town on his journey from Scotland to London.  And so, perhaps, Reginald Waters dreamed of some such memorable juncture.
But during that February of 1604 the Alderman and the town went about their day-to-day occupations, and by the end of the month it is more than possible that most had already forgotten the ‘victim’ of the plague that the beginning of the month had brought.
In March a very small outbreak of the plague was reported within St George’s parish, resulting in four or five deaths, and although – as the days passed – it gave no indication of spreading, the Alderman put into force the collecting of taxes as agreed by the council at the meeting of December the second 1603.  Also at this time, the Council, fearing that prominent people would leave the town ‘because some houses in the town were affected with plague’ and that therefore those who remained would have greater burdens in helping the sick, and that the markets would ‘fail, be defamed, disgraced and foresaken’; and that visitors, seeing houses shut up, would think the plague worse than it was and wouldn’t stop to buy things, agreed to levy fines on those who left the town.  But as the month of March continued there was nothing to indicate the plague’s intention to spread.
At the beginning of April however, the disease claimed another victim.  The Alderman would have been advised.  The death took place outside the town wall, at the White Friary.  But before many more days had passed. The plague was active once more, this time in St Michael’s parish, on his own doorstep, and as April drew to its end, another eight had fallen prey to the dreaded plague.  Alarming as this was, what proved more terrifying was that the disease was on the move and spreading at a disturbing rate.
The plague turned into an epidemic with such speed that within a space of four weeks, of the 82 deaths recorded in the parishes of St Michael and St George, at least 75 were recorded as being a result of this scourge.  And yet at this time the rest of the town was still virtually free of the pestilence.
In order to appreciate the pace at which the plague spread, it would be worth pausing at this stage in order to consider the causes of the plague, the conditions on which it thrived, and the terror associated with it.
Writers dealing with the subject argue as to its origins, but all accept the connection between the disease and the black rat.  In his book Man against Germs, A L Baron describes the plague as the reluctant germ, in that it was a disease of the black rat,  and that it was spread by the parasite, or flea, leaving the cold dead body of the rat in search of warmer conditions, found in man, a suitable substitute.
Most of us can conjure up mental pictures of the Black Death of the obscure Middle Ages.  The cloaked scurrying figure, the white, suspicious, peering face; one would still have heard the rattle of wooden carts,  and seen the awesome mark of the red cross on the doors of plague-infected houses. Only a witness of the day would be able to see the terror in the eyes of those involved, or hear the cries of sufferers. The Black Death had changed its name to the more simple ‘plague’, but nothing else about the disease had altered.
Very few of those who suffered at the hands of the plague would know the luxury of medical attention, but most would easily recognise the symptoms: the pallor and shuddering of the afflicted, the ominous blotches on the skin, and the dreadful black boils.  From the appearance of the first symptoms until the inevitable death took no longer than five days.  Nine out of every ten cases would not expect to survive.
What caused the plague was still not known, at this time.  Most God fearing people still thought of it as retribution for the evils of the world, as  can be seen from the entry written in St George’s register ‘The first that died of the visitation of the sickness of God’.  The Elizabethan Prayer Book contained special prayers about plague, saying that it was a judgement from God.
Within the first week of June, deaths were being reported from all parts of the town, including St Martin’s.  Husbands, wives, sons and daughters, perished as the plague devastated home after home. The household of Robert Thomas lost three sons and two daughters inside of 15 days;  the Martin family lost one son and two daughters within two days; and Robert Miller and his son both died within two days.  The list is almost endless.  By the time the month was ended another 134 burials had been recorded.
Throughout this time the authorities were unable to offer any assistance to the inhabitants of the town, and by now Alderman Waters had his own household to attend to.  The 12th June saw the plague within his quarters.  A servant of the house was down with the sickness, and there was Susan, his wife, to consider; the birth of their fourth child was expected any day.  And, despite all his skill and education there was very little he could do but wait and hope.
As the hours and days slowly passed, the servant’s condition worsened and by the 17th of the month  he was dead, but the rest of the household appear to have escaped the plague’s first attempt to gain a hold.  Three days later, his wife gave birth to a son, Perry, and for the time being the Alderman’s personal crisis was over.
But not for others of his own class; Mary Wolf of St Mary’s parish buried five of her servants inside of three days.  She saw the death of her son William, and, on the last day of June the plague claimed Mary herself, together with another member of her household, Jane Tailor.  And there were others Reginald waters would no doubt be acquainted with.  Seth Hyman, William Clarke, Robert Ramsden, a former Alderman, all had their own share of grief.
By the time the epidemic reached its peak in July, business activities in the town would have been almost at a standstill.  Markets that supplied most of the town’s food requirements would by now have almost ceased to operate, adding further misery to the poorer members of the community and the region around.
The mortality rate was very high within the working class areas of the town.  The high density of their buildings together with the overcrowded living conditions made them ideal breeding-grounds for this particular disease.  The more wealthy, with their spacious dwellings and a much higher standard of cleanliness, enjoyed some measure of isolation and therefore better protection from members of their own class.
Apart from the high mortality, many more townspeople would have been incapacitated by the plague, creating problems about such employment that was still available; even finding labour for the grim task of disposing of the dead would not have been easy.  Further, despite the levy imposed by the council, many a family would have left the town at the outbreak of the plague, some never to return.
But perhaps the chief cause behind the town’s chaotic state was the general fear of association. In fact, for most it was a time to keep oneself to oneself.
In the meantime, Alderman Waters may have considered himself fortunate.  As the days of June passed, the death rate in his own parish began to drop, and there had been no other serious attacks from the plague since before the 17th. But as the month drew to a close, a second servant went sick with the all too obvious symptoms of the disease, the nightmare started all over again: the constant watching and waiting and always, with him, the fear that the plague would seek out those most dear to him.  On 1st July the second servant died and, to add to the Alderman’s anxiety, his new born son, Perry, was also in poor health.  The 11th of the month saw yet another tragedy, as the family mourned the death of the child.1
August brought hope to the greater part of the town in the central and eastern sectors.  The worst part of the epidemic was over, but not for those living in the parish of All Saints and possibly St Martins. Here the plague was still raging.  All Saints recorded 31 deaths in August compared with only four in St George’s parish.
But the end was in sight; as the summer waned, so too did the plague, and September saw the town’s mortality rate almost back to pre-1604 levels, and the survivors setting about the task of bringing their town back to sanity and its normal status.
Recorded burials for 1604 total 621.  Almost 600 of these took place from April to September.  Church registers for the year bear witness to the turmoil the town was in.  Some of the parish register totals differ from those in the Bishop’s Transcripts.  Dates are not always in order, indicating that the clerk at the time made notes elsewhere and entered them into the register at a later date.  In the case of St Martin’s there are no dates given for any entry in the burial register for the whole of 1604. This inaccuracy in the individual registers could signify a greater mortality rate than that of the accountable total.
The town’s average annual burial rate for the ten year period prior to 1604 was 64, so that at least ten times the average number of deaths is recorded in this year of calamity.
A close look at he table of parish totals – shown at the end of this article – reveals a distinct pattern to the movement of the plague.  The initial outbreak almost certainly took place along the boundary line of the parishes of St Michael and St George.  If this is correct, then a study of the town map of the period may well disclose a likely area, possibly a high density poor area in the vicinity of the present day St George’s Street.  From these two parishes, the epidemic then moved into St Mary’s parish and perhaps St Martin’s, followed by St John’s, and finally into All Saints parish.
The town in general took almost forty years to recover its population losses, some parishes taking longer than others.  St Mary’s recovered its losses in under 35 years, whereas St Michael’s took nearer 60 years.
Surprisingly, there were more marriages during the plague year.  St Michael’s recorded 14 ceremonies, all taking place between September and December, after the plague had largely died out; compared with an average of only four per year for the three years before, and the three years after the plague year.
Most historians of the town have mentioned another major epidemic of plague in or about 1642, with deaths computed in the hundreds.  Generally, authors of these works have tended to copy one another.
That the plague was active in the town at that time is not disputed.  Richard Butcher, Town Clerk and historian – though not in office in 1642 – should have been in a position to verify the fact.  But William Harrod writing later, could find no further evidence to substantiate the figures quoted, and concluded that the Civil War had disrupted the keeping of parish registers.  It is quite true that some of the parish churches have either no registers or those that do exist are incomplete. But where they were kept, they give no indication of an epidemic on the scale of that of 1604.
Finally, what of Alderman Reginald Waters?  Well he survived the plague, as did the rest of his family.  Later on, his wife presented him with two daughters, Grace and Elizabeth.  He continued as a council member until 1614, but was never made Alderman again.  His year of office was memorable, and his name has now gone down in history – but perhaps not quite in the way he would have wished.

  1.  There is no firm evidence that Perry Waters died as a result of the plague.

Research sources
Parish church registers, Bishops Transcripts, Hall Book 1

January         4   4
February 3       2   5
March   6     8   14
April 10 5   1 5   21
May 45 37 2 6 7 5 102
June 34 40 25 24 11 20 154
July 28 22 34 28 29 33 174
August 14 4 12 19 31 35 115
September 1 0 3 2 8 6 20
October 0 1 2 1 2 2 8
November 1 0 0 0 0 1 2
December 1 0 0 0 1 0 2
  137 115 78 81 108 102 621

The totals are for all recorded deaths and not just those of the plague.  The totals for St Martin’s are correct, but the lack of dates in the church register made it necessary for me to estimate the monly totals.