London is – closed!
Now, this is a headline that your columnist never thought he would write!
As Covid-19 sweeps the globe, some of the most astonishing scenes have come from deserted capitals.
Paris, City of Love, is a ghost town and the Big Apple has lost its pips.
Meanwhile, the UK capital has been bathed in glorious, warm spring sunshine for most of April, including the notoriously unpredictable Easter weekend. But parks that would have been full of festivals, families and people sunbathing are either closed or mostly empty with mounted police moving people on if they hang around too long.
Lockdown has been particularly tough for people living in the many high-rise blocks. Many in poorer areas still date from the 60s and 70s, when little thought was given to outside living space and this makes the current situation almost impossible for young families.
We have seen celebrities crying on their doorsteps and others rising to the challenge of entertaining the nation from their kitchens.
As the Prime Minister was taken the short distance across Westminster Bridge from Downing Street to St Thomas’ Hospital, in a desperate dash to save his life, bus drivers were dying of the deadly virus elsewhere in London.
The empty streets provided unique opportunities to film-makers and photographers, but only the lucky few could venture out.
This Orwellian, dystopian world listened to Queen Elizabeth II as she promised Londoners and the rest of the world from Windsor Castle that “we will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again, we will meet again”. And then, a few days later, on her 94th birthday, the artillery guns in Hyde Park, usually fired to celebrate, fell silent for the first time in the 68 years of her reign.
Have we been here before?
‘History Corner’ has taken over this month and been digging out the answer to this question. The short answer is ‘Yes, and more than once.’
As the capital of one of the predominant trading nations of the world from the Middle Ages onwards, London was in the firing line for any imported disease and illness. The busy, working docks to the east of the city were the landing ground for goods and people from all over the globe.
The first well-documented pandemic to hit London was the Black Death. Like today’s virus, this also originated in China, but this time from oriental rat fleas. The first reported case was in Dorset but, by autumn 1348, the disease was widespread in the capital. Accurate data is difficult to find, but it is estimated that some 40% of London’s population (around 30,000 people) was wiped out.
The disease was also known as the ‘Great Pestilence’ and the ‘Great Mortality’, and there is the famous Black Death Cemetery in East Smithfield, close to the famous square mile of the City of London.
Better known, the Great Plague of London was to strike the capital over 300 years later in 1665. This was, in fact, a resurgence of the same bubonic strain that had come and gone over the centuries and it was the last widespread outbreak of the disease in the country. This time some 100,000 people died in the cramped, filthy living conditions of the capital.
London had a huge population but was still quite small geographically, estimated at covering just 448 acres at this time and epidemics of illness were commonplace. Cobbled streets were slippery with animal dung, general waste and the slops thrown from houses. The flies were intolerable in summer and the smell of raw sewage was overwhelming. People wore handkerchiefs or ‘nosegays’ over their faces when walking the streets in another comparison to the face masks of today.
Rather than the filth in front of them, Londoners seemed more worried when a bright comet appeared in the sky in 1664, believing this to be a portent of evil and disease.
In marked contrast to today, rich people abandoned the city when the disease took hold, including King Charles II who escaped with his family to Salisbury. The Lord Mayor of London and aldermen stayed though to help fight the pandemic, but most businesses closed, and trade dried up. Poorer people had little choice but to stay and sit it out, and those that did manage to get away were shunned by people outside of the city, fearful of the disease.
In words reminiscent of London in 2020, Daniel Defoe famously wrote: “Nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts”.
The pandemic peaked in early autumn when some 7,000 people were dying each week in London and the suburbs, but it then slowed and dwindled with sporadic outbreaks in 1665. Legend has it that the Great Fire of London that year destroyed the disease. The evidence would point to a more natural recovery, though it may have helped avoid a second spike in the figures.
Mass graves, known as ‘Plague Pits’, were dug all over the capital and it has been claimed that the winding nature of London’s Underground railway system reflects an attempt by Victorian engineers to avoid disturbing bodies. Catharine Arnold in her 2006 book, Necropolis – London and its Dead, writes: “At the spot where Brompton Road and Knightsbridge now meet, excavations for the Piccadilly Line between Knightsbridge and South Kensington Underground Stations unearthed a pit so dense with human remains that it could not be tunnelled through. This is said to account for the curving nature of the track between the two stations.”
In better times, it is possible to visit some of London’s plague sites and several pits are below the capital’s open green spaces. Choose your picnic spot in Hyde Park or Green Park with care!
London beat the Black Death and the Great Plague, so watch out Covid-19, your days are numbered!
Carry on laughing
In these tough times, the message from London Calling to readers is simple. Follow the expert advice, stay at home and stay safe. Phone a friend, eat well, drink well and we will beat this together.
We will get to that light at the end of the tunnel and meet again on the other side. Remember – for the first time in history, you can save the human race by lying in the sun or in front of the TV and doing nothing. Don’t screw it up!
By Richard Lamberth
Richard leads parallel lives with homes and business interests in London and Portugal. He provides consultancy services to leading businesses in insurance and financial services, property and media sectors. He has four sons, two dogs and enjoys a busy family life. He likes swimming, keeping fit and an outdoor life.