THE ‘Father of English History’, the Venerable Bede wrote that in 664 ‘a sudden pestilence depopulated the southern coasts of Britain’. It is one of the first British epidemics of which we have any record. Did it strike the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of the settlements from which Southampton would grow? What was it? Smallpox? Bubonic plague? We don’t know.

But we do know Southampton is a prime suspect as the place where the Black Death, the most devastating disease in British history, entered the country, having moved relentlessly westwards from Asia during the 1340s. Suspicion falls on Southampton because of its thriving trade with the continent, but also in the frame are Bristol and Melcombe Regis, now part of Weymouth.

When I was at school, I was taught that the Black Death was bubonic plague, and that is still the view of most historians: bubonic plague, probably working with its lethal relatives, pneumonic and septicaemic plague. But, more recently, some scientists have suggested it might have been an ebola-type virus, or maybe a disease that is now, mercifully, no longer with us.

Either way, as the death toll mounted, the Bishop of Winchester got the priests in his diocese to urge their flocks to attend sacraments of penance, and parade barefoot with heads bowed around the market place or through the churchyard. It didn’t prevent the disease hitting Winchester with particular violence, and it is reckoned that at least half of the population of 8,000 died. The bishop was dismayed to see the townspeople burying their numerous dead in a common pit outside the town, and part of the High Street had to be consecrated as a burial ground.

Southampton appears to have escaped more lightly with a death toll of perhaps one in four, though that was certainly bad enough. Overall across England, the Black Death killed up to 40 per cent of the population.

For the next three centuries, plague was a frequent, unwelcome visitor. In 1563, for example, it killed 400 in Southampton, and in the century following 1590, the town’s population fell from about 4,200 to 3,000. Though it had other problems, like the Civil War and a decline in trade, the repeated epidemics undoubtedly took their toll.

Spread by fleas of the black rat (though no one knew it at the time), plague caused a horrible death with swellings as big as an apple appearing under the armpits, accompanied by black blotches beneath the skin and an agonising thirst. Much-touted remedies like treacle, crab’s eyes, rhubarb, jellied vipers covered in gold leaf, or smoking tobacco had little effect.

The last great outbreak of plague reached Southampton in June 1665. It raced through the community, and the mayor tried to self-isolate the town from its neighbours. At least half the population, up to 1,700 people, are claimed to have died, as the rich and the clergy fled. Marriages and baptisms were performed by a French pastor who stayed at his post.

After the epidemic passed, the corporation fined the deputy mayor and 16 officers for being absent during the crisis, while King Charles II donated £50 (more than £5,000 in today’s money), and helped to raise £2,000 altogether. As late as 1696, the famous traveller Celia Fiennes found the town still ‘forsook and neglected.’

Winchester also took stringent precautions – vetting visitors, mounting a clean-up, cancelling big public events, closing Winchester College, ending services in the cathedral. As in Southampton, those who could, got away, leaving the town ‘emptied.’ The corporation said ‘many hundreds’ died, and in 1670 reported Winchester had never been ‘in so low and mean a condition as now it is.’

Just as no one at the time knew that rat fleas spread bubonic plague, so no one knew when cholera first arrived that it was caused by contaminated water. Southampton was largely bypassed by the first major epidemic in the early 1830s, but by the late 1840s, the disease was back, and in June 1849, the town recorded its first case.

A committee of doctors and local councillors was set up to try to fight the epidemic, and soon realised what they were up against. Of Southampton’s 230 streets, only 85 had sewers. In filthy back streets, the committee found ‘manure heaps, pigsties, piles of entrails of fish and other animal matter and broken drains.’ More than 70 people might be sharing one toilet, and some had not been emptied for years.

Partly because of protests from the P&O shipping line at the conditions in which their workers were living, the national Board of Health sent an inspector to Southampton who delivered an equally bleak picture. He was especially horrified by a pond full of animal carcasses and the corpses of unwanted babies. As the disease descended, the authorities could not do much more than hand out leaflets with advice on how to try and stay safe, and 240 people died.

As with plague and coronavirus, cholera brought economic problems too, with trade virtually shut down until the end of September.

Cholera also brought a horrible death. The body could lose pints of fluid in a few minutes, and become shrunken and shrivelled. There would be acute pains which would spread up the limbs and were often accompanied by agony in the stomach. The skin turned black or blue, and the victim found it hard to breathe, as air came out of the mouth with a low whining or moaning sound. Sometimes the pain was so severe the body convulsed almost into a ball, and could only be put back into its normal shape after death. One doctor said he found a 30 year old man, ‘shrivelled, corpsed and shattered by six hours cholera, into a torpid skeleton of 70 years.‘

Cholera reappeared in 1865, killing 40, and it was only after this outbreak that major improvements were made to Southampton’s sewage disposal and the water supply, but that was not enough to prevent a final deadly visit in 1886 that killed 100.

Perhaps the cruellest of all the great epidemics was the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918 (though it probably originated in Asia.) It hit the country just as the First World War was ending, and many who had survived that terrible conflict were swept away by it.

While hostilities continued, the authorities and the press kept pretty quiet about it. After all, information about how Britain was being hit by a devastating epidemic could be useful to the enemy.

So few people knew that when the troopship Olympic, a sister ship of the Titanic, docked at Southampton on 21 September, carrying American troops for the Western Front, a third of them, nearly 2,000 men, had flu. Beds had to be requisitioned in a nearby isolation hospital but 140 died. Just as with the Black Death, Southampton had become an entry point for a major epidemic.

Across the country, ‘Spanish flu’ killed a quarter of a million people, and unusually for flu, it seemed to carry off those in the prime of life more than the old. But, in spite of being one of the first places to be hit, Southampton appears to have got off relatively lightly, with 371 flu deaths up to April 1919 in a population of nearly 161,000, while Brighton with a lower population of 142,000 had 509 deaths, and Sunderland with only 159,000 people had 854. Portsmouth’s population at 247,000 was about 50 per cent bigger than Southampton’s, but it had almost three times as many deaths at 940.

  • John Withington is the author of a number of books on the history of disasters, including A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press, 2005) and A Disastrous History of the World (Piatkus, 2008).