History / London
24. We’ve seen this before
Though melodramatic comparisons with the great plague and fire won’t wash, post-lockdown London can still learn much from their aftermath.
The air is clean and the roads are clear. However, a procession of masked faces reminds me why the spectral streets of lockdown London are still eerily empty: coronavirus. Is this how the city felt when the well-to-do fled the plague and quit town in 1665? Plenty of Sunday supplements, authors and TV historians have been quick to draw parallels with the plague – and then plug their books on the subject. But by my reckoning, they’re all a year off. The effect of coronavirus on society is less like the bubonic plague that killed nearly a quarter of the capital’s population and more like the fire that swept through the unfortunate city in September of the following year. What we can learn from 17th-century medicine is minimal but what we can take from how the city was rebuilt and its political life was changed is worth reflecting on.
Today governments, businesses and everyone else shocked by the sudden shutdown need to urgently plan for a figurative rebuild when things open up again. In 1666 much of London was razed to the ground but the subsequent bounceback saw it emerge as Europe’s biggest and most dynamic city within a few decades. Now we might not have had the land cleared for a physical rebuild of the UK capital but we’ve all been shaken from our routines and given the opportunity to think about how we use our space. In London, as in other cities all over the world, political leaders now have a choice: either to limp back to a cautious, inhibited version of the recent past or to take the current standstill as an opportunity to turn their home towns into fairer and more sustainable places.
In the years before the five-day blaze, parts of London were a mess. Diarist and gardener John Evelyn, ever the understated Englishman, likened it to “the suburbs of Hell”. Yet many of the best neoclassical buildings in the empty city through which I now cycle went up between 1667 and 1700. The Rebuilding Act of 1667 decreed that all new structures must be made of brick or stone and not combustible timber and thatch; it imposed a raft of practical measures to spread out dwellings, limit their height (and overhang) and to standardise architectural styles under the guidance of commissioners led by Sir Christopher Wren. His plans for an overhaul were resisted in favour of the existing higgledy-piggledy street plan but buildings were improved, breathing spaces were added and a more modern London was born.
Within the current rethink should be questions on how we think about space too. Do we need the daily grind of a regular commute? The fearful crush of edging forwards on a crowded platform before squeezing into a tightly packed carriage? Most of us felt that it was a grim but necessary and fairly efficient ritual but many have now seen another way of working: from home. Add to this the fact that companies are being encouraged to consider staggering their working hours, there’s a (slim) chance that such a scene could be a thing of the past. Unlike when London grew powerful and popular after the fire, we could also see an exodus from the city as many people realise the ease with which they could swap urban life for somewhere with zippy broadband, better birdsong and a chicken coop outside. Or maybe a second-tier city on the continent or a smaller capital within a shortish plane ride? It’s all sounding rather tempting.
So who is rethinking London life and how? Enter Nickie Aiken, member of parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster, who has some questions: “Do companies with massive office blocks really need that much floor space?” she says. “Could a company work with people coming in two or three days a week? We have a huge housing shortage so maybe some of those office blocks could be turned into flats.” So while there are good ideas on the table, let’s hope that the table isn’t folded away too quickly when the world is allowed back out.
One vital ingredient in seeing off any crisis is strong leadership and, in this sense, the UK government’s fumbling of figures and terrible provision of personal protective equipment hasn’t offered much to be hopeful about. In the late 17th century, as now, many people pulled together – but the government also came up with a plan to help. “It wasn’t every man for himself,” says Vanessa Harding, professor of London history at Birkbeck College. “One of the most impressive things was the way in which the legislation tried to spread the cost of rebuilding between landlords and tenants. It would be nice to feel that something along those lines is going to happen today.” Here’s hoping that the history books will detail a similar rallying from our leaders after the initial disorientation passes – though I’m not holding my breath.
One obvious difference between the Great Fire and coronavirus is the timescale of the disruption. The stray embers from a baker in Pudding Lane started an inferno that burned for five days; whereas London has already clocked up weeks of lockdown in 2020 and faces many more of uncertainty and containment. The jolt to society, however, is comparable and the response swift: the 17th-century city installed its first fire hydrants, set up a fire brigade and even developed the first insurance company. Will today’s London mount similarly sweeping responses?
We should think about it, says urban historian Leo Hollis. “People will remember this moment and remember that at times of crisis extreme measures are necessary,” he says. “We are and have been in a crisis that is worse than coronavirus with the environment – what it needs is a similar type of response. Now that we understand what the state can do, we will demand that it does more.”
There are modern examples of such pushes: think of the foundation of the National Health Service and the expansion of the welfare state in the UK after the Second World War. “The Beveridge Report [which ushered in the welfare state] was published in 1942 so it wasn’t as though the war stopped and they had three months to reinvent society; they had a plan,” says Hollis of the public sector before offering a warning about how private profiteers could take advantage if the government isn’t decisive enough. “There are people in banks who are doing this – but for their own advantage.”
Aiken, the MP, says that tentative plans are already afoot to change London for the better. “I’m suggesting to the mayor that we have at least one day a week of no vehicles in central London,” she says. “We should use this opportunity to be brave.” Whether this and other initiatives are the ones that make it to the history books remains to be seen.
Why coronavirus isn’t like the plague:
The coronavirus fatality rate is somewhere between one and four per cent. The plague that arrived in London in 1665 carried a gruesome 80 per cent hit rate. Not good odds.
Thanks a bunch
Today we think that flowers are lovely but we don’t expect them to act as a cure. But this was the belief in the 17th century and is the reason why people still give flowers to those who are convalescing.
Even by the very worst estimates, coronavirus won’t wipe out anything like the proportion of the population that the plague did. Some say it claimed 15 per cent of Londoners, others insist many more. It informed the naming of the London roads Vinegar Street (this being the hand sanitiser of the day in which money was dipped before it was exchanged) and Pitfield Street, a former dumping ground for bodies. Other pits sit beneath King’s Cross station and Islington Green.
The singles chart has yet to produce a single as catchy (or macabre) as “Ring a Ring o’ Roses”, a haunting ditty named after the rose-like rashes that foretold infection. The song ends with the refrain, “A-tishoo, a-tishoo, we all fall down.”
Take 20 a day, as prescribed
No matter how bad the UK government’s provision of protective equipment has been, we can all be thankful that modern medicine has done away with some of the treatments on offer for the plague, which included the application of leeches, sniffing vinegar-soaked sponges and encouraging children to smoke cigarettes.
Monocle comment: For the reasons stated above, this pandemic isn’t really like the plague, although the latter offers some clues about how coronavirus might be immortalised. Will it spawn a hit song, though?
About the author: Bates is monocle’s deputy chief sub editor. She is working on a novel set during the aftermath of another London fire: the Grenfell Tower blaze of 2017.