Readers of our novel, Bartholomew Stovall – The English Immigrant, know that George Stovall, father to Bartholomew, was a victim of the 1665 pandemic that ravaged London. It is certain that all in America who carry the Stovall DNA were directly impacted by this singular casualty. A victim of his father’s untimely demise, Bartholomew grew up in poverty and found few prospects for a prosperous career in his native England. As a young man he decided to pit his chances on life in the new world of America.
Bartholomew’s quest fashioned an American lineage that represents the embodiment of our country’s heritage. From the Atlantic to the Pacific we are thankful for our freedom, but currently find ourselves dealing with a pandemic in our modern world. Covid-19 will most assuredly become the most documented pandemic in all of history, but could the panic and confusion it generated have been predicted if comparisons were made to the Black Plague that befell Europe during Bartholomew’s time?
In late fall of 1664, a large ship left the seaport in Amsterdam loaded with a cargo of cotton. She traversed into the North Sea and then steered southward, bound for the Port of London. The tightly bundled bales were an essential commodity for the mills and weavers who spun the cotton thread, and in turn produced the fabric used for apparel and bedding.
History records that the cargo of cotton was accompanied by colonies of flea infested rodents that made their way off the ships and settled into the streets and shanties of London. Unbeknownst to everyone, the fleas carried the bacterium bacillus or the contagion that produced the Bubonic Plague.
The Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe for most of three years and claimed more than 30,000 lives in Amsterdam. By the end of 1665 one third of London’s populace would perish, well over 100,000 souls.
Perhaps the number of casualties would not have been so great if officials had taken heed to early warning signs. Isolated cases of the plague were reported in the outskirts of London, but these instances were ignored when reoccurrences did not appear to materialize.
Additional measures were made to avert the threat by placing a blockade at the mouth of the River Thymes and ordering all ships from infected areas to spend 30 days in quarantine before entering into the Port of London. The intent may have been prudent but proved ineffective in helping prevent the spread.
By May of 1665 London’s contamination reached such an alarming level the affluent Gentry Class commenced their exodus from the city. Large wagons could be seen transporting family and household staff, fleeing with what few goods and supplies they could gather. Even King Charles II abandoned his residence at Westminster and relocated to safety at Oxford. His departure left the appearances that London’s situation was desperate.
In June 1665 government officials made it clear that measures must be put in place to “flatten the curve” of the spreading contamination. Large gatherings were prohibited, and people were encouraged to refrain from mingling in the streets. Taverns and pubs were temporarily shut down, schools and universities were closed, sporting events were cancelled, travel restrictions were put into place, and finally, people were advised to stay indoors.
At the height of the spread, as many as 8,000 souls perished per day. With no one moving about and no goods being exchanged, the city’s economy collapsed. Horridly so, the casualties increased causing death carts to patrol the streets. London had turned into a graveyard.
The contagion held its grip until the Winter of 1665 when strong north westerly winds forced all creatures large and small indoors, away from the cold. When the outside temperature plummeted, so did the casualty count. Londoners greeted the good news with caution but remained optimistic that the spread may have run its course. First the cobblers, seamstresses, and local merchants opened their doors for business. Then bakeries, pubs, and places of worship joined other establishments attempting to bring their city back from the dead.
Months passed with no significant occurrences reported, prompting the people of London to breathe a sigh of relief that the worse of the plague was behind them. Then on September 2, 1666 their elation was shattered when a careless baker at Thomas Farriner’s bread shop on Pudding Lane neglected an overheating oven. Within three days’ time, the great fire of London destroyed over eighty percent of the homes and public buildings within the walls of the city.
Some say the fire finished off what remained of the dreaded illness that had claimed one third of the populace. Perhaps this is so, but as a result of the fire a new London was built replacing the narrow cobblestone pathways with carved streets and sewer drainage. Gone were the thatched roof dwellings, all being replaced by buildings made of stone, some containing two or three hearths. Gone was the dread of the plague, replaced by an attitude of optimism. London was reborn to become one of the worlds great cities.
The large cities of Europe were the epicenter of contamination, but eventually the Black Plague moved into the small towns of England. Not to be spared was the farming community of Albury, Guildford Borough, Surrey, home to George and Joan Stovall and their newborn son, Bartholomew. George Stovall was inflicted with the Bubonic Plague just a short time after the contagion dramatically decreased. He was the unfortunate victim of a pandemic that had crested and was falling. George succumbed to the plague on November 8, 1665, just weeks after the birth of his only child.
History did not record the widow, Joan Stovall’s years following the death of her husband. In all appearances she remained in Albury and provided for her son. It is documented that she attended a Quaker Friends meeting with her son in 1675. A short time later she passed away leaving ten-year-old Bartholomew an orphan.
By the time this young orphan reached the age of eighteen years, he was sailing to the American Colonies on a ship filled with other indentured servants. He would spend four year as a purchased plantation worker and would eventually spawn an American lineage that has survived since 1684.