Charles II’s ministers issued very clear and comprehensive Rules and Orders in response to the plague in 1665, which were binding on all JPs, mayors, bailiffs and other officers. Many of them are very familiar today. However the plague was much more virulent than Covid19 and thus the impact of the Rules and Orders far exceeded the confusing rulings of Messrs Hancock and Johnson.
The key instruction was the removal of any infected person to a pest house set well away from the town or village. A few such structures remain today; the neat little one below is in the corner of the churchyard at Odiham Hampshire where I used to live. It is larger than many such buildings and is in effect a tiny cottage.
Clause 10 of the Regulations expected each community to identify “able and faithful searchers and examiners sworn to search all suspected bodies for the usual signs of the plague”. I wonder how many of these noble people survived without themselves being infected. It was unlikely to be a role for which many volunteered. Once the sick person had been identified he or she was immediately placed in the pest house and their own house “be shut up for 40 days and have a Red Cross and LORD HAVE MERCY UPON US affixed on the door”. After the 40 days were over “at the opening of each infected house a White Cross be affixed to the door, there to remain for 20 days more …. before any stranger be suffered to lodge therein”.
After this quarantine period there were very tough rules on cleaning all infected houses. Clause 12 says “the said house be well fumed, washed and whited all over and with lime; no clothes or household stuff be removed out of the said house or into any other house for at least three months after.”
Although the Plague had a devastating impact in London, it also spread to a lesser extent in the country. The best known case is the village of Eyam in Derbyshire that suffered with the loss of 70% of its population because it was visited by a trader from London (who did not self isolate).
Charles’ Rules and Orders conclude by suggesting how towns and parishes should help each other by levying taxes “such that visited poor may have sufficient relief”; it also ordains that all collections at religious services be used for a similar purpose. The key message was that each community should be responsiblefor managing the plague in its area. No centralisation, no PHE, but still clear guidance from the state on how to cope.