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In this year (1603) began the greatest plague that ever was in Bristol and died of the number of 3000 or more. (Civic Annals of Bristol) (P. Slack, The Impact of the Plague in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 111).
Just one month after the plague began in Bristol in August 1603, young Philip Dance, aged 7, was the first recorded death in Hungerford of the same dreadful disease (Parish Registers). His father, John, was a butcher in Charnham Street, on the main Bristol-London road. Butchers' shops were always a health hazard, especially in summer, and were common origins of local epidemics. This was the beginning of a severe local outbreak which would last throughout the rest of 1603 and the whole of 1604.
Plague was one of the most dreaded of all diseases in Elizabethan England. It usually wreaked havoc wherever it was present. There was certainly no effective remedy. Rue, walnuts, vinegar, and roasted onions were popular 'cures': those who took them and promptly recovered may well have been only mildly affected by the disease.
1603 was a very bad year for the plague. Many Wiltshire towns and villages, as well as Hungerford, also suffered epidemics, and the authorities' concern about the spread of disease is only too evident from Quarter Sessions records. Orders were made at the Sessions held at Devizes on 18th October 1603 as follows: these would have affected those parts of Hungerford in Wiltshire at that time, including Charnham Street where the local epidemic seems to have begun.
"Watch and ward was directed to be kept in every town and village, in order to examine and apprehend all vagrant suspicious persons and rogues - if any such persons be suspected to be dangerous for infection, they are then to be prohibited from lodging or abiding there". (HMC Report, Various Collections, i (1901) Wiltshire QS MSS p 74).
The authorities were clearly in no doubt that Vagrants and suspicious persons' were responsible for spreading the disease, and this was a time when there was great concern about poverty and vagrancy in general. There is no way of knowing who brought the plague to Hungerford, but once it had arrived, it remained in the town for some sixteen months. January 1604 was one of the worst times, with nineteen recorded entries of 'plague' in the burials register. Evidence from Bristol suggests that the plague usually spread from house to house and affected most social groups, although in Hungerford it is interesting that none of the substantial families - Goddard, Youll, Fawler and Seymour -appeared to have lost any members in this particular epidemic.
A total of fifty-three people died of the plague in Hungerford between September 1603 and December 1604. The Dance family were one of the worse hit; they lost four children, with the death of another, a baby, also recorded, although apparently not from the plague. Five families including the Dances accounted for one third of the deaths, losing three or four members each. The Plums lost father, mother and two children; the Jyssets lost three children, including two year old John. Nine families lost two members each, while another eighteen individuals also died. The last to die was Widow Ryman in December 1604.
However, catastrophic though it must have been as far as the affected families were concerned, the plague did not seem to have any lasting effect on overall population growth. During the early years of the 17th century, the population continued to grow, though not as fast as before. The years of spectacular growth were over, replaced by a slower, steadier increase. The plague returned briefly in 1609, but its impact was much more limited.
(From Elizabethan Hungerford, Julie Shuttleworth et al, 1995)
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