Heritage: How we faced the Black Death, smallpox and other epidemics in the past

In 1962, although the health centre at Gooshay's Drive, Harold Hill, was giving smallpox vaccination

In 1962, although the health centre at Gooshay's Drive, Harold Hill, was giving smallpox vaccinations from 4 to 5pm every Wednesday, officials found themselves faced with this 500-strong queue before the doors opened. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

As the country braces itself for the Covid-19 virus, Professor Ged Martin looks at how Havering faced health crises in the past.

In 1348, bubonic plague (the "Black Death") arrived in Britain. We don't know much about its impact locally, but a Havering document of 1351 mentioned "the immense mortality of the present time arising from the plague".

Professor Marjorie K. McIntosh of the University of Boulder, Colorado, the expert on medieval Havering, estimated that the Black Death killed 800 to 900 people - one third of the population - in Romford and Hornchurch.

Until 1410, St Andrew's churchyard in Hornchurch was the only cemetery for both places. Probably there were mass burials in pits.

Plague often returned. The manor of Havering suffered badly in 1361. By 1369, houses and farms were without tenants.

Outbreaks in Romford were caused by travellers from London, where epidemics were devastating. When the diarist Samuel Pepys visited during the Great Plague of 1665, he found Havering people "afeard of those of us that come to them".

Around 80 Romford people died of plague in 1571 - terrifying in a town whose population was probably less than 1,000.

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There's a glimpse of a community in fear in 1603, another bad year. Innkeeper William Rame received an urgent message to visit Thomas Kempe, who was "lying sick of the plague in his house in the town of Romford". Since Kempe's home was quarantined, Rame stood in the street outside and called to ask what he wanted.

Bubonic plague covered the body with stinking pustules. A pane of glass had been cut from a bedroom window for ventilation.

Shouting through the gap, Kempe asked Rame, a literate businessman, to make his Will. While other locals looked on, the dying man listed his wishes.

Returning later with the document, Rame stood "as near to the house as he durst" and read it aloud. From his "chamber", Kempe approved the contents. Bystanders witnessed that it was a valid Will. Actually signing it would have risked spreading infection.

Both Romford and Hornchurch were ravaged by plague in 1625. The last big epidemic came in 1665. That year, Pepys met an interesting clergyman at Dagnams, the Harold Hill mansion. He returned two weeks later to find that his new friend was dead.

In 1666, Romford established a primitive isolation hospital, called the Pest House. It stood near Prospect Place in Collier Row Lane. During the 18th century, it was used to confine people with smallpox.

A much-feared disease, smallpox was also bad for trade. In 1764, an advert appeared in an Ipswich newspaper denouncing "evil-minded people" who spread rumours that "the Small-Pox still rages in the Town of Romford to the great Detriment of the inhabitants there". Romford insisted it was clear of disease and open for business.

Smallpox was eradicated by inoculation. Upminster had spent a lot of money on "nessares" (necessaries) for a smallpox patient in 1766, including wages for a woman who "nust" (nursed) him.

Twenty years later, Upminster paid a doctor to vaccinate its poor people.

In 1831, a new threat appeared - cholera. A meeting of Hornchurch residents decided to use lime and whitewash to disinfect the village poor house, which stood at the corner of Billet Lane - on the site of Sainsbury's. Ditches and privies from Harold Wood to the Thames were to be cleaned out. Pubs were to close at 11pm - but how this prevented cholera wasn't explained.

A local man was hired as a security guard, given a uniform and a big stick, and ordered to tour the parish, "to caution all beggars and vagrants and suspicious characters to leave the place". Driving potential health risks out of Hornchurch was a great way to spread infection.

Upminster, especially Corbets Tey, suffered a cholera outbreak in 1854. The cases were all traced to "a cottage of the dirtiest description" at Hacton. Three people died.

With modern healthcare, we've become relaxed about the danger of epidemics. Maybe we're in for a shock.