Plague in Wootton Bassett

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February 25, 2016 by auntkatefirmin

Bartholomew Horsell, his wife Dorothy Pickcott, and their children lived in a era that I know little about. From the point of view of national history, Wootton Bassett was barely a wide spot in the road, and it’s difficult to find any specifics about how the tides of history affected individuals in the area. In this post I will attempt to look back at one aspect of their lives: two of the last major episodes of the bubonic plague in England.

L0037352 Page from Lady Fanshawe's recipe Book, Plague precautions

A contemporary recipe for treating and preventing plague from about 1651. Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

As I was attempting to fill in some of the blanks in my knowledge of the 17th century I came across this: “Wootton Basset is found by a petition in this year to have been another of the plague-struck villages; from 25 Apr. 1645, the plague continued for sixteen weeks, during which time sixty persons died, and relief and maintenance cost the parish about £100.” (page 114)

Bartholomew and Dorothy would have been married almost eight years by April 1645, with three known children. As far as is recorded in the Wootton Bassett parish registers, none of the Horsell family died during this outbreak. Still, I was curious as to how this epidemic might be reflected in the parish registers.

Using only the indexed transcripts to the Wootton Bassett burials, as found in a larger compilation by the Wiltshire History Society (version 1.4 of their CMB29), I tallied an arbitrary 60-year span of burials from 1619 to 1678, which covers both known outbreaks of plague in Wootton Bassett, 1645 and 1665, and much of the lifetime of Bartholomew and Dorothy.

Over these 60 years the average number of burials in the register is 21 per year. I have been unable to find a population estimate for Wootton Bassett before 1801 when the headcount was 1244. At this point, I don’t know how inclusive the burial register really is, and without some idea of the population I can’t calculate a death rate or make any comparisons to other places.

What is very clear is that Wootton Bassett was hit very hard in 1645 with 42 burials recorded in April, May, and June. That doesn’t match the report of sixty persons in 16 weeks, as the deaths drop back to 2 in July, but it is by far the highest death toll in the sixty year span, with the exception of 1670 (which I will return to). My suspicion is that the higher number (sixty) may well be correct and the burial register does not record every death. Bartholomew & Dorothy certainly must have known many families in their community who were affected by the plague in 1645.

Wootton Bassett is also said to have been affected by the 1665-1666 plague epidemic, which was famously severe in London and inspired Defoe’s work of fiction, A Journal of the Plague Year. Bartholomew and Dorothy were still alive and their youngest son, Ruben, was thirteen that year; again none of the Horsell family are known to have died in this outbreak. The height of the plague in London was around September 1665. The traces of the plague in the Wootton Bassett burial registers are more ambiguous: from September through the following February there were (mostly) 4-5 burials in a month as opposed to the more usual 2-3 burials, with a peak in November of 8 burials. Without other evidence, it would be clear that something unusual was occurring but there are several other years where the death toll was worse. Since there are no causes of death listed in the register, without the outside evidence plague could not be assumed.

Andrews & Drury map.

Map showing Wootton Bassett from 1772.

In this small parish, the deaths in a given year fluctuated from 11 per year to 53 (in 1645) and I hesitate to draw any conclusions other than the most obvious with so little to go on as no ages are given and no causes of death. Even in London where the Bills of Mortality begin to make studies of causes of death possible, the different understanding of illnesses makes translation into modern terms difficult. The inhabitants of Wootton Bassett were certainly more likely to die from smallpox, tuberculosis and various “fevers,” than a modern person – but that’s not saying much.

What caught my attention was the ten year span that includes what is assumed to be “our” Bartholomew’s death at age 62 in 1669: 1665-1674. In this ten year period, half of the time the deaths in a year are over the average of 21 deaths per year. In fact these ten years include five of eight worst years in the 60-year span. The most likely burial for Bartholomew, the husband of Dorothy, September 1669, does not stand out as an exceptional month, with four burials, though it does precede a bad spell for Wootton Bassett with 13 burials recorded in the following December and January. Bartholomew’s granddaughter, Dorothy Horsell was buried in February; she was around seven weeks old.

Until I do some more research I can only speculate about why, in particular, those ten years in Wootton Bassett were so difficult. I am assuming that years with higher deaths were difficult not only from the standpoint of the loss of lives, but because of the underlying causes, often high food prices and/or unusually hot, cold, dry or wet weather. I’m on the trail of nation-wide research regarding mortality in the 1600’s in hopes of getting more clues.


Note the tomb of Reuben Horsell in the foreground.

The parish church of St Bartholomew and All Saints in Wootton Bassett. . © Copyright Nick Smith and licensed for reuse under CC2.0






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