Southampton had become a ghost town

There are records from the dark days of the plague which can throw a little light on the catastrophe.

No one knows for sure how the Great Plague of 1665 entered Southampton, some suggest it came from London which it may well have done.

As a trading port, Southampton had welcomed those from overseas for centuries and traded with the entire world. It’s possible Southampton may well have been an entry point into the United Kingdom for the dreaded plague that crossed over from Europe. To suggest differently would merely be supposition as we know ships and people were coming and entering the port on a regular basis.

It’s easy to imagine rats carrying infected fleas running down the ships ropes into Southampton, an occurrence which was not uncommon even with ships in modern times.

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Ships outside the walls of Southampton during the mid-18th century

Records tell us that the Great Plague hit the town around June 1665, and that around 1,200 citizens were to succumb, dying from the plaque.

We can only imagine that month of June in 1665 as folk fell ill and panic gripped Sotonians of the old town. Southampton was a smaller place back then, its inhabitants mostly confined within its ancient walls. London as with the Blitz was to suffer from the plague to a greater degree because of a greater population.

But the little town was hit hard as shops closed and trade came to a virtual standstill. Church records tell us that residents were leaving their homes in Southampton and fleeing to the countryside in an attempt to escape almost certain death.

A record tells us the good folk of St Julien's Church in Winkle Street were still tending to their flocks putting their faith in God’s will.

Although the wealthy were able to flee the confines of Southampton where the disease raged, not all had that luxury or indeed anyway of supporting themselves if running from the town.

Were those fleeing Southampton spreading the plague further afield ?

We will never know.

It appears the clergy in town were either succumbing to the plague or themselves leaving Southampton as the death toll rose.

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St Julien's Church as it is today. Credit: Richard Nevell

St John's, a church that no longer exists in Southampton, was demolished around 1708. When St John's was built is unclear, as it may have been in the old town even before the Norman Conquest, it sat on the east-side of what we today call French Street with its own graveyard.

St John's and the French church of St Julien's in Winkle Street feature in a record made during the time of the plague in Southampton and gives us a little insight into the time that the plaque was at its worst.

The Mayor of Southampton Arthur Bracebridge pleaded with government in 1665 for help as the town’s residents were dying from the disease. Arthur was not in an enviable position as the panic spread and Southampton become a shadow of its former self - all within a period of around a month.

To have a child or person christened before they died had always been a tradition as it was believed that one should be before being buried and entering the Kingdom of God.

We see from our church records that on July 23, 1665, when the plague was probably at its worst in the town, that John Fawcet of Southampton wanted his son to be christened. The pastor of St John's Church had left the town!

It is said he had been laid up with an illness but had left his home "for a change of air in the country" as the death toll rose and folk had deserted the town of Southampton.

So, St John's at this time was unable to conduct services.

What was John Fawcet who wanted his son christened to do?

From our records we see that the French Church of St Julien's in Winkle Street were instructed by order of the Mayor to perform the Christening of a young English boy Nicholas in the church of St John. Nicholas's father and a midwife were present at this christening on July 23, 1665 - perhaps the boy's mother had already died from the plague.

It appeared to be an unusual order from our Mayor but we have to remember these were desperate times with the traders leaving the town and shops closed. It’s also likely that food was in short supply for the poor Sotonians that had all but been abandoned.

By September of 1665 the plague had all but subsided, where all those folk that perished were buried is unclear. Some we know were buried in the graveyard of St John's, but with a final figure of over a thousand, those graves must have been very deep or perhaps their mortal remains placed elsewhere in communal graves.

Sotonian folk began to drift back to our town only for another outbreak the following year in 1666. Nature is said to have been taking over the town as unchecked trees and shrubs grew freely where Sotonians had lived, "Southampton had become a ghost town" because of the Great Plague of 1665.

One of the images on this page is an illustration depicting the courtyard of St Julien in Winkle Street. The church was originally the chapel for God's House Hospital and, as we know from our records, God fearing folk stayed in the town during the plague. The picture shows people removing the dead and loading them onto carts to be transported to their final resting place.

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The good folk of St Julien were refugees from Flanders and France who had been here for a hundred years. Queen Elizabeth allowed them to make England their home and granted permission for the church in Southampton where some settled.

These folk remained and helped the unfortunate of Southampton whilst others fled the town during the Great Plague of 1665.

By William Burns, founder of Facebook group Southampton Sotonians & Friends.