LOCAL historian Dave Welbourne looks at Plagues of times past in Bradford and other Yorkshire locations.

The impact of coronavirus is a reminder that throughout history epidemics have struck intermittently.

The Black Death in the 14th century killed around 50 million people worldwide. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, there were cases across England. Historians believe hardly a year went by in the 17th century without the plague striking somewhere.

‘Ring-a-ring o’ roses, A pocket full of poses, Attishoo, attishoo, We all fall down.’ This nursery rhyme has its origins in the days when plague was rife. The ‘ring of roses’ refers to red blotches on a victim’s skin; ‘a pocket full of poses’ were flowers carried to ward off the plague; ‘attishoo’ was sneezing fits; ‘all fall down’ referenced dropping dead.

Black rats carrying deadly fleas were aboard trading vessels, and merchants carried the disease inland. The intensity was made worse by the squalid living conditions. Medieval records show town streets full of waste. Dung heaps piled up outside houses and town gates. Dirty water, urine and slops were thrown into streets. Towns like Otley and York had a ‘shambles’ where butchers slaughtered animals. In York, in 1371, butchers were ordered to build a pier over the River Ouse to throw offal, as it was ‘a nuisance’ in the streets. Animals such as pigs roamed the streets, feeding off waste, and leaving their own waste behind.

The Black Death ravaged York in 1348, spreading from the River Humber. Half the population, probably 10,000, died. Houses and shops were crammed in narrow streets, where many people were wiped out. Peasants, labourers, and artisans were most affected. Half the parish priests perished. York’s churchyards were full to overflowing. The plague returned to York in 1361, 1369, 1376, 1390, and in 1604, when 3,512 died.

The Manor Court Rolls for Bradford show that in 1349, 22 tenant farmers died from the plague. The whole village of Bolton, outside Bradford, appears to have been wiped out. Bubonic plague returned in 1362 and 1369, leading to unemployment and migration, causing a population decline. Records for 1557 and 1558 reveal that deaths exceeded births. Birstall was seriously hit, with 111 burials from 1587-1588. There were outbreaks in 1603 in Dewsbury, Wakefield, Mirfield and Halifax. When, in 1604, the bubonic plague hit York, victims were isolated on Hob’s Moor. The Hob Stone marker, near today’s race course, was for clean water, or vinegar for disinfecting coins, and for food to be left. Some sufferers were isolated outside the walled town, in wooden lodges.

Recent excavations by Sheffield University across the River Humber at Barton upon Humber revealed 48 skeletons of plague victims dating to 1349. They were found at Thornton Abbey, where males, females and 27 children were unearthed. They had probably fled to the Abbey for medical care. One victim wore a pendant, believed to protect against plague.

Plague broke out in Hull in 1576, brought in by foreign sailors. It was confined to Blackfriargate, walled up to prevent victims escaping. Only food and medicines were allowed in, and as a result of the precautions, only 100 died. In 1635 the whole city was put in quarantine; gathering of groups prohibited and churches and schools closed. Over a three-year period commerce was badly hit and poverty rose, leaving at least 2,730 dead.

During the English Civil War (1642-6), with the movement of troops and goods, bubonic plague appeared again. York, Birstall, Wakefield , Halifax, Leeds and Bradford were affected in 1645. In Bradford large numbers died and some were buried in an isolated part of Cliffe Wood near Spink Well, Bolton. Bradford’s economy stagnated.The worst death toll in Yorkshire was in Leeds where 1,300 died. The first victim was a young girl, Alice Musgrave. As numbers grew, it was decided to isolate them in plague huts.

Because the wool trade was so important to Leeds, Col. Charles Fairfax of Menston, a Justice of the Peace, suggested washing fleeces in running water, dried out in the sun, wind and fire. It was decided to appoint ‘examiners, searchers, watchmen, keepers, and buryers’, at £10 a week, but costs soared, rising to £50 in September, 1645. Markets were moved to Woodhouse Moor, Chapletown and Hunslet Moor. Public gatherings were discouraged. On Chapletown Moor there was a Plague Stone dated 1666, with a hollow for vinegar to be poured to disinfect money donated for plague victims. There was a similar one at Ackworth in West Yorkshire. Around 270 Leeds wealthier householders, with their families and servants, fled the town, until it was safe to return.

By November, 1645, the plague was waning, it was thought the cold weather would bring its demise. Only three people died the week before Christmas, but between March 12 and December 25, 1,325 had perished.

The Great Plague of 1665-6 largely came from London, but there were cases across England. In Mirfield 180 died, and there were deaths in Bradford and Halifax. York was badly affected, with victims buried outside city walls. Grassy embankments below its walls are thought to be plague pit sites. Writings of Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe give graphic plague details. Victims were identified by swollen lumps in the neck, armpits and groin. Pepys wrote in his diary that because of the smell he had extra tobacco to sniff or chew. He wrote of main streets eerily empty. Daniel Defoe described victims with violent fevers, vomiting, headaches, back pain and fits.

Various 'remedies’ included wearing a dead toad around the neck and swallowing a piece of paper with Abracadabra written on it. Lucky charms were recommended by doctors. One ‘quack cure’ was to apply a dead pigeon to the groin. Poultices of onion and butter, and sprinklings of dried frog, were placed on festering boils. Arsenic and blood letting were common. Smoking was a ‘remedy’ - children were encouraged to smoke pipes.

Watchmen guarded victims’ homes so they couldn’t escape. Some were bribed, even murdered. Crowds were forbidden at funerals, theatres closed, some taverns closed, others were crowded. There were cases of people deliberately infecting passers-by, breathing in their faces, or drunken men kissing women in the street. As many believed the plague was sent by God, they were encouraged to attend church.

Self-isolation probably did much to reduce the death toll, along with colder winter months. A 17th century case of stay at home and save lives! The most moving case was Eyam in Derbyshire, where the rector, William Mompesson, and the villagers went into quarantine so its plague wouldn’t spread. Around a third of the village was wiped out, the last death on November 1, 1666. Over 260 villagers from 76 families died in ‘the Plague village’, remembered for their bravery and self sacrifice.

In recent years there have been plague outbreaks in countries such as Peru, Madagascar, Russia, China and America.World Health Organisation figures for 2013 show 783 cases in the world, and 126 deaths. There is now a vaccine so any future pendemic can be controlled. In the meantime, we await a vaccine to control the coronavirus.