How Romford suffered with outbreaks of plague hundreds of years ago

Dagnams Mansion, 1819

A view of Dagnams Mansion, 1819, from an engraving - Credit: From the collection of Andy Grant

Historian Andy Grant looks back to the 17th century and earlier to examine how Romford suffered when there were outbreaks of the plague.

In June 1348, the yersinia pestis bacterium arrived in Britain, being transmitted to humans by oriental rat fleas, carried upon rodents.

Bubonic plague  - the Black Death -  had arrived upon our shores and thereafter outbreaks occurred with regularity, usually resulting in “immense mortality”.

The most notable plague epidemics occurred in 1360, 1470, 1479, 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, 1636, and the 1665 Great Plague.

Being a market town on a main route from London, Romford was susceptible to such outbreaks.

In London, an average of over 1,000 deaths per week was recorded during the summer of 1563. Drastic measures were enacted to prevent the spread of the disease; from September 30 any house with infected persons inside was boarded up and a blue cross painted upon the door, and any contact with those outside was prohibited for 40 days.

Stray cats and dogs were to be destroyed and bonfires lit in the streets at 7pm to “purify the air”.

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Women, mostly widows, were hired by the parish to visit the houses of sick people to tend to them, especially during times of plague.

They were also required to examine the bodies, to ascertain the cause of death. Daniel Defoe told of those fleeing the Great Plague from London, afraid of using the main highways, moving through the forests towards Romford and Brentwood.

Laying-up in Hainault Forest without subsistence or habitation, they built roadside huts or hovels and plundered farm animals for food. Those that descended upon Romford were viewed with suspicion and dread by the local population.

In 1665 Samuel Pepys frequently visited the mansion of Dagnams (Harold Hill), the home of Lady Wright, where throughout July he had been arranging a wedding between Lady Jemima Montagu, daughter of the Earl of Sandwich, and Philip Carteret, eldest son of Sir George Carteret.

On July 24 he was horrified to hear that “a chaplin, with whom but a week or two ago we were here mighty high disputing, is since fallen into a fever and dead".

On August 3 his diary records that a maidservant of John Wright had been confined to a room, “smitten by the plague”, but had escaped through a window.

Upon finding her on the common, arrangements were made to convey her to the Pest House.

He continues: “Sir Anthony Browne, with his brother and some friends in the coach, met this coach with the curtains drawn close. The brother being a young man, and believing there might be some lady in it that would not be seen, and the way being narrow, he thrust his head out of his own into her coach, and there saw somebody look very ill, and in a sick dress, and stunk mightily."

By September 14, Mr Pepys heard that a labourer he had recently sent to Dagnams had died of the plague; and that one of his regular watermen, that carried him daily, had fallen sick after landing him and died of the plague.

Between 90 and 109 victims who had died of the plague were recorded in Romford in 1665. However, it is a more realistic estimate that around ten times this amount died from the plague in Romford and Hornchurch.

With churchyards unable to accommodate burials on this scale, victims were unceremoniously buried in plague pits outside of the town. No local records exist that detail this.

During the Great Plague, Romford’s Pest House was built fronting onto a green in Collier Row Lane, where Prospect Place was later built.

A map of Collier Row in 1706 showing the location of the Pest House

A map of Collier Row in 1706 showing the location of the Pest House - Credit: Andy Grant

This was a sort of local isolation hospital, where plague victims were confined and more often than not, died.

When Fords were building their storage facility on Hornchurch Marshes, a plague pit was uncovered. Many locals claimed to have seen the ghosts of plague victims and those condemned on the nearby Dagenham Gallows restlessly wandering around on the foreshore.

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group. 

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