10 lockdown laws from plague-time Norwich
- Credit: Poppyland Publishing
How did Norfolk people deal with pandemics before hospitals, vaccinations or much medicine beyond herbs and hope?
They used lockdowns, social distancing, quarantine and shielding – with punishments for anyone breaking the rules.
Historian Frank Meeres has made an intriguing and timely study of how pandemics swept through Norwich for three centuries from 1349 – and investigates the terrifying toll they took.
Around half the population is thought to have died when the first wave of bubonic plague hit the city. Whole families were wiped out. And then wave after wave crashed through Norwich until its final plague death, 319 years later.
Frank, who has written many best-selling local history books, draws fascinating parallels between global pandemics of the past and present, revealing that although people did not use the words lockdown, social distancing or shielding, they were all measures imposed in emergency legislation centuries ago.
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When plague struck Norwich emergency laws included:
1. Sentencing elderly residents of the Great Hospital who left home without permission during the plague of 1631 to two hours in the stocks and to miss their next meal.
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2. Boarding up the houses (with the residents inside) of anyone who had the plague or had come into contact with a victim for at least five weeks after the final recovery or death.
3. Social distancing. In 1625 a man appointed to look after some of Norwich's poorest plague victims had to carry a red wand, at least a yard and a half long, as did all members of his family, to warn people to keep their distance.
4. Food deliveries. For the current pandemic we appointed covid wardens. In 1579 people called “keepers” were hired by the city authorities to deliver food to people confined to their homes. If the isolating families could not afford to pay, the city would meet the cost. “Watchers” were sometimes set to ensure isolating households followed the rules.
5. Furlough, or a 17th century equivalent, was used in Norwich in 1633 when three groups of actors and musicians were paid not to perform in the city.
6. Travel bans. No-one was allowed to board or leave ships from plague-hit Holland and London when they arrived in Yarmouth in 1636. And in Norwich in 1666 chains were pulled across the river between the boom towers, which still exist as ruins near Carrow Bridge, to stop boats coming up the river from plague-hit Yarmouth. During that year’s outbreak passenger carts and coaches travelling between Norwich and London were also banned. Lockdowns were literal in walled settlements like Yarmouth and Norwich which could lock their gates to incomers.
7. Test and trace. In some years anyone wanting to enter towns such as Norwich or Yarmouth from a place where there was a known outbreak had to carry a certificate, or clean “bill of health” stating they came from an uninfected house.
8. Shops and schools shut. In the outbreak of 1665 many of the stalls on Norwich Market were closed. The following summer the market was moved to open space outside St Stephen’s Gate to help people stay apart and all city schools were closed.
9. Quarantine hotels - but a lot less lavish. People suffering from the plague, or pestilence, could also be forced into “pest houses.” Pest houses were built on the Denes outside the town walls in Yarmouth and in the Black Tower on Norwich city walls.
10. Political scandals. There was bad behaviour in the past too, with the 17th century Yarmouth official responsible for importing herrings from Holland (because they couldn’t be bought from plague-ridden Newcastle) giving himself the official licence – and opportunity to make lots of money. He was later sacked.
And yes, the rich left the cities to live in their second homes in the country.
How Norwich Fought Against the Plague, Lessons From the Past, by Frank Meeres, is published by Poppyland Publishing.