I turn over the small plaque in my hand. Simple in its form, a piece of wood, a house reflected, the words ‘Gods Providence is my inheritance’. A small thing that tells a vivid tale, a memento of a family’s survival through a dark time in Chester’s historic past, carved in the image of the house on Watergate Street.
Held in the palm of my hand I imagine a lone figure walking the streets, as dusk falls and the river mist rises, the crow shaped mask distorting the human features. The sighing of the sick, groaning of the grieved, crying of the children, howling of orphans, (Gough cit Dyer,p322) fills the air day and night. Many houses are now empty, the plague has come once again to the city of Chester, the living memory of the last time it darkened the doors still vivid for some, there is a terror which runs through this remembrance, hysteria for those left behind, (Dyer,1978 cit, Hodges, 1720,p3). There is fear of the quickness of the spread (Wilson, 1925,cit Dyer 1978,p322)Those that can, have fled to the surrounding countryside but for many this is not an option. Those that are left having lived through so much, parliamentary conflict just over, leaving the city depleted and a population weak from siege (1644-1646) (Clarke, 158,cit,Ward,p70) There is much damage and liquidation of assets, the city is at a low ebb (Hudson & Tingey,cit,Dyer,1978, p.316). A people now weak, with little immunity (Dyer,1978,p310) have been stricken by this unrelenting and vile plague. There is no distinction for it all are fair game, ‘plague does not discriminate’ (Dyer,1978,p309) whole households will be taken, some will survive but many will be taken to the mass graves, men, women, children, laid together for eternity against the churches wishes in non-consecrated ground (Evans,2020,p66) outside the city walls. This time we were ready to warrant the isolation of the infected, removing many to the plague huts at the edge of the city, there many will die, some will return, but those will be few in number. The local government have been quick to react (Dyer,1978,p314).
The hooded figure turns, rounding the corner, moving slowly down Watergate Street, here a single house stands, its occupants have not fled instead the household locks themselves up having laid down stores of provisions sufficient for the whole family, lucky enough to have the means to shut the doors, their well-maintained home with tiled roof (Dyer, 1978, p309) offers a haven, they have money to haul up provisions with their household and sit tight wile this distemper roams the streets in search of victims. Many do not have this option, they sit in overcrowded hovels, poor condition already exists in their health, they have few possessions, poor diet and no means to escape, all they can do is sit and wait to see if death comes knocking, this plague distinctly a curse for the poorer classes, (Dyer,1978,p309). There will be many within the household and once one is afflicted then the rest will surely succumb. Residents in many cases have locked themselves in with the shadows, the carriers of this plague are not so far away, they walk through the ramshackle roof spaces, low to the ground seeking morsels, prolific in their breeding and host to the tiny flea which will continue to feed from their host, infecting their blood and allowing them to spread death wherever they roam. Their sedentary nature means that they will not travel far and the confines of the houses within the city suits (Dyer,1978,p308). The roofs here are all connected and the black shadows walk freely from house to house. When the plague strikes many are removed to avoid infection, some are quarantined within their homes, sick and well, contained together, in the worst cases the occupants are secured within from the outside by the watchmen (Dyer,1978,p314), the cries of fear and stench of death seeping from behind closed doors. This fragmentation of society causes civil unrest (Dyer,1978,p319) this quarantine causing natural resentment, people are angry at being abandoned by the rich for who their livelihoods depended. People become ‘as cruel as dogs to one another’ (Pepys,cit Dyer, p320). The old ladies, those who have no means to support themselves walk the streets searching for the dead and the ill, this is their job now, they have no fear of contagion, they have already lost everything, they are but shadows themselves. A relentless darkness in mind and surroundings, the light does not bring relief, all that made the city once thriving has stopped, people no longer visit bringing their wares to the hustle and bustle of market day all casualties of the epidemic. (Dyer,1978,p317). This lack of materials and buyers will close down the remaining businesses (Dyer,1978,p317) Michaelmas and Christmas is cancelled for fear of spread of infection (Hudson & Tingey,1978,cit,p316) and those that performed in the street are now a distant dream. There seems no end to the misery.
As the distemper passes emerging from the darkness, the house at Watergate Street, kept as a garrison none to go in or out (Wilding,2003,p80) through the whole. Gods Providence house, so it is said, the only house untouched by the outbreak (Ward, 2013,p71). Many displaced by plague, many dead, the fear is passed, those that left return and now there is a void that can be filled by a surplus in the countryside willing to enter the city and replace the loses (Dyer,1978) but we are all touched even after the worst is over, the remainder of the population will now suffer from the consequences of unemployment and hunger.
Dyer.A.D, (1978) ‘The influence of bubonic plague in England, 1500-1667’. Medical History, 1978, 22:308-326
Evans L., (2020) Burying ‘The Dead: An archaeological history of burial grounds, graveyards and cemeteries. Pen & Sword
Clarke J.W., 2009,’The Building of Grosvenor Bridge.’ J.C.A.S. vol. 45 pp43-55, in ‘Chester: A History’ The History Press, p70-71
Gough, MS, (1978) Eccl. Top 7, Bodleian library, Oxford, cit Dyer. A.D, 1978, ‘The influence of bubonic plague in England’, 1500-1667. Medical History, 1978, 22:308-326
Hodges. N, 1720, ‘Loimologia’ London cit Dyer.A.D, The influence of bubonic plague in England, 1500-1667. Medical History, 1978, 22:308-326
Hudson & Tingey, (1978) op. cit., note 13 above, vol 2, pp 195-196, cit Dyer. A.D, 1978, , The influence of bubonic plague in England, 1500-1667. Medical History, 1978, 22:308-326
Latham. R & Mathews.W, 1972, (editors) ‘Diary of Samuel Pepys’, London, G. Bell. Cit Dyer.A.D, The influence of bubonic plague in England, 1500-1667. Medical History, 1978, 22:308-326
Ward S. (2009) ‘Chester: A History’ The History Press, p70-71
Wilson P. F, (ed) 1925, ‘Plague pamphlets of Thomas Dekkr’, Oxford, Claredon Press, p144
Wilding.R., 2003, ‘Death in Chester’ Bath Press, Chester
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