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Customer Review

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amongst the finest and most accurate account of both Plague and Fire of 1665-66, 11 Jan. 2010
This review is from: The Plague and The Fire (Paperback)
First printed as far back as 1962 James Lesors superb book about the Great Plague and Fire that swept through London from 1665-66 makes superb reading.

The first chapter especially draws on accurate historical facts to convey to the reader what daily life was like in the terribly overcrowded much smaller city of London.

We are informed that back in 1665 the entire area of London didnot cover an area greater than 448 acres and today would fit happily in the smaller part of the Eastern area of the Underground system.

The characters and crooks who mostly lived outside the cities walls congregated near the four main gates leading into the city preying on unsuspecting businessmen and merchants, the London of today is a fairly tame capital compared to the one in 17C England with the main threat to a persons safety being the Highwayman.

As is the case today the contrast between rich and poor in our capital city was just as pronounced in 1665 with the hangmans nouse being of little deterant.

With little or no charity available to those who found themselves destitute, highway robbery was seen as a chance for rich pickings,with the chance of not being caught far outweighing the scaffold.

One aspect that brings this book to life are the "Bills of Mortality" compiled by the then Fellow of the Royal Society John Graunt.

His accurate enough for the day analysis of how many people died and from what illness throughout the great pestilence provides us with valuable knowledge of how many people actually lived in the then largest city in Western Europe.

He also goes to great lengths to tell us that this outbreak of Bubonic Plague was hardly the first to threaten the city.

There were several outbreaks in the earlier parts of the 17C killing many thousands as it went, so to think that the Great Plague of 1665 was the first to hit London during the 17C is far from the case.

In 1636- 10,400 people died from plague and way back in 1603 more than 30,000 perished all in the area in and around London.

Graunt calculated around 600,000 people lived in and around the City of London during the reign of Charles 11 and after the Great Plague loosened its grip on the city well over 100,000 of those souls had died.

Actually the week after the Great Fire had ended in 1666 according to Graunt 8,252 deaths were recorded of which 6,988 were due to plague.

The newspaper "The Intelligencer" summed up the feeling felt by all those who lived in London

"God in His Mercy remove this heavy judgement"

There are few books written on this period of history as compelling and interesting as James Lesors, with so much background detail on how people lived their lives in this heavily polluted city, it's a book that one will enjoy reading time after time due to its no nonsense approach to this most interesting period of England's history.

I've owned an original copy of this publication for well over thirty years and it's a book I lovingly return to every few years or so due to its magnificently told narrative.

It's not often that one can re read a book after a lengthy pause but Mr Leasors book is a classic publication, full of interest.

There were no modern sewers as we know them today with the stench and filth silently flowing in the gutters with unsuspecting people being soaked with the contents of chamber pots being emptied from the windows above.

The main reason for the Great Fire and Plague spreading so rapidly was due to the very close proximity of neighbouring buildings, with some so close that it was almost possible to travel around the city without actually setting foot in the streets.

With space being at such a premium in the city, buildings were crammed into every available space so when the fire did eventually break out it proved so devastating.

Once the cities overseers had painted the red cross on the doorway of a particular building indicating one or all it's inhabitants were sick with pestilence ,everyone living inside be it an entire family or often several families was condemed to a lingering and often painful death, nobody was allowed to enter or leave the building until the disease had either claimed everyone inside or those still living could prove to the authorities that the plague had left the building.

To add misery to those unfortunates locked up in their homes during that fateful year of 1665-66, London experienced one of its hottest summers increasing the presence of the Black Rat and it's deadly plague carrying fleas.

The only people assigned to check on the condition of those unfortunates locked up to die were the poor themselves who relied on the small payments given to them, bribery became a big problem because the only method of telling whether a particular area of the city was free of plague was through the reports issued by these overseers.

There were many instances of the unscrupulous asking inflated sums for a much needed drink of water or basket of food.

Due to the fact that the poor had nowhere to go, with the wealthy fleeing the capital early in the year to their country estates, everyone had to fend for themselves.

The poor and destitute, themselves half starved took what ever employment was available, and the position of overseer was taken as a last resort due to the fact that whoever took the job of checking the condition of the populace dying a lingering death would most likely end up in the communal plague pit themselves.

It was the overseers duty to report to the relative authorities so that the Bills of Mortality could be kept up to date and it is highly likely that hundreds if not thousands of wrongly diagnosed deaths were reported as plague when the person had died from so many other common ailments such as Typhus, Collera etc.

At the very height of the pestilence during the hot summer weather of 1665 there was a mass exodus of the wealthy and those able to flee the city.

London almost became a Ghetto where those who had nowhere to go had to stay and either perish or survive the Plague.

Due to the lack of medical knowledge both wealthy and poor were to die in their thousands and the medical practices used to combat the disease were often far more severe than the agonies suffered by the painful swellings underneath the armpits and groin.

Over the many years that James Lesors book has been in print there have been many other publications mostly academic in nature on the causes and spread of Bubonic plague throughout 17C Europe but "The Plague and Fire" still stands out as the classic reading material due to it's accesability to readers young and old.

Possibly only Daniel Defoes "Journal of the Plague Year" and Samuel Peyp's diaries can give us such informative information on conditions in 17C London during the Great Plague but those are more designed for the older reader whilst Mr Lesors book can be enjoyed by young and old alike.

That first chapter outlining what life in 17C London was like for all classes of society is magnificently written and it is the kind of book that draws you into the rest of the cities history throughout the Great Plague and Fire.

When a book often goes out of print in less than four years here is a book that has survived half a century in print which speaks highly of this magnificent account of life in medieval London.

It is a book that will be appreciated by young and old and written in a very interesting informative style and it is a book one can return to in years to come and still find compelling reading.

That first chapter provides so much information that the rest of the book is a must read and throughout the book Mr Graunt is giving us his Bills of Mortality on a regular basis.

There has always been a morbid curiosity with plague throughout the centuries, one only has to witness the many different books printed on the subject.

I have read quite a few of them but what makes James Lesors book stand out as something special and an aspect that is rarely touched upon is the detailed historically accurate information that makes the Plague more credible.

To say that the population decreased by so many thousands is one thing but to back it up with historical fact taken from a reliable source who survived the plague makes the narrative far more special and grizzly.

A book that i cannot praise highly enough and will probably remain in print for as long as out interest remains in a disease that wiped out nearly half of the population of Europe during the 17C .
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Location: Llandudno N Wales

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