The Plague House: Bringing History Home

In Warrington, there is a wall.

I mean, of course there are many walls in Warrington, but there is one wall in particular that I find intriguing.

On July 10, 1852, a Saturday, local resident Dr James Kendrick and a friend went into a field beyond the boundary of this wall and proceeded to stick a large iron probe into the ground.

Using this probe, they were able to identify a large stone just over half a metre below the surface of the soil. They set about uncovering this stone and revealed a thick red slab sandstone, rough from the quarry, with one rounded end, and broken across the middle – and it was big: approximately 155cm in length and 65cm in width.

But that was not all the found. Oh, no. Beneath this stone they discovered “the bones of the pelvis and lower extremities of a male human being, and near the pelvis the skull and lower jaw” [1].

Perhaps curiously, this was exactly what they had been hoping would be there. For this field, beyond the wall, known locally as Broom Field, lay directly behind Warrington’s infamous plague house.

The plague arrived in England late in the winter of 1349 and the first outbreak lasted into 1351. Following this, the disease became endemic in the population, reappearing regularly across the country until the last major recurrence in London in 1665-66.

Like many areas during this period of history Warrington was subject to repeated outbreaks of the plague. However it was during the last outbreak of the disease in the town, perhaps during the last national outbreak in 1664-65, that Warrington’s plague house came to be.

A plague (or pest) house is a building where individuals infected with the disease reside and, at a loss to identify any other way to prevent the spread of the disease, were subject to incredibly strict quarantine. They became increasingly common as the plague persisted – beginning as hastily built wooden shacks at the edges of towns, to established homes eventually being designated for the purpose.

Reliable information on the Warrington plague house is scare, but we do know the following. The house is believed to have been built in the mid-17th century.  A two storey building, split into four dwellings, on Wash Lane in Latchford (a division of the borough about one mile out). A timber beam at the front of the house was carved with the date 1650 and some records state that ‘God’s providence is mine inheritance’ was also carved into the wood. The original owners of the house, formerly known as the Round Step House, are said to be Richard and Ann Warburton, benefactors of the poor in this area.

The road nearby was subject to regular flooding and so stepping-stones were required often to reach the gate in the garden wall. The wall in itself is nothing remarkable, but in its north-west corner there was a coping-stone (a stone that forms the top of a wall) and this particular stone is remarkable. Carved into the right-hand side of the top-face of this stone was a square cavity, approximately 13cm square and 5cm deep. This stone, was a plague stone.

KendrickVignette

The plague house and plague stone, sketch from “the friendly pencil” of Mr. William Henry Rylands, of Warrington, after the original held by Dr. James Kendrick [1].

Plague stones had cavities carved into them so that they might be filled with vinegar (or occasionally water).  Coins would then be placed into these wells by quarantined individuals to be disinfected before being collected by townspeople who provided the isolated with provisions. While plague stones are not unusual, they are more often stand-alone features or incorporated into market crosses at the boundaries to towns. It is not often they are found in an existing building or wall.

There may have been some attempts to prevent the plague, but unfortunately there was no way to treat the disease once inflicted. Of those infected with the plague, approximately sixty per cent died – an end that seems to have been met by some, if not all, of those isolated in Warrington’s plague house.

Unusually though, it was said that those who died of the plague here were not interred in the consecrated ground of their parish as was the custom. Instead, it was stated that they were rapidly buried in the field beyond the wall, immediately behind the plague house, which was at the time glebe land (an area of land within a parish that is used to support the priest).*

In 1843 some labourers digging in this field came upon three human skeletons, covered with a flat worked stone, without inscriptions or marks of any kind. The slab and the bones beneath, with the exception of the head and lower extremities, were removed… and subsequently lost. It was this account that captured Dr Kendrick’s interest and led to his investigating further on that Saturday in 1852.

LondonIllustratedNews

The story of the plague house and plague stone captured interest as far as the capital during the 19th century. [2]

The plague stone was removed from the wall – although whether that was before or after this investigation it is unclear – and taken into the possession of Dr Kendrick. It was presented at the local archaeological and historical society in 1853 and then placed with the Warrington Museum, where it can still be seen today.

The plague stone as displayed in the Warrington Museum. If the original illustrations are accurate, it is now missing a large section.

While there is a skull on display with the plague stone, sadly it is not the one discovered by Dr. Kendrick and his friend in 1852. That was skull described as “much decayed” around 40 years later and does not appear to have survived [3].

The plague house remained, lived in, until 1957 when it was finally demolished as derelict (the council having first decided this should happen in 1936 no less).

The plague house as it appeared until its demolition [4].

The plague house much as it appeared until its demolition [4].

The wall is still there.

* In case you haven’t figured out why this story piqued my interest (aside from it being a part of my local history) it is because this variation in funerary treatment is super-mega-interesting, especially given my specific research area. And even though I said information is relatively scarce, there was a great deal that I had to leave out of this post. If you are interested in knowing more, please get in touch or leave a comment.

In my (brief) searchings, I have also identified these other images of the plague house (digital reproductions – original sources unknown).

The plague house and plague stone illustration - obviously reproduced after the original Kendrick and London Illustrated News sketeches.

The plague house and plague stone illustration – obviously reproduced after the original Kendrick and London Illustrated News sketeches.

The plague house and people (similar to photo on display at Warrington Museum).

The plague house and people (similar to photo on display at Warrington Museum).

The plague house.

The plague house, perhaps as it appeared immediately before demolition (from the Warrington Guardian).

There is also a great photograph from 1899 held by the Cheshire Archives.

References:

Beamont, W. 1889. A History of Latchford, p. 86.†

Field Investigator. 1960, December 24.†

[1] Kendrick, J. 1885. Warrington Local Sketches, in Journal of the Architectural, Archaeological, and Historic Society for the Country, City, and Neighbourhood of Chester, Vol 3:Double Part 10 & 11: 290-291.

[2] London Illustrated News. 1853, May 21. Old House and “Plague-Stone”, in Nooks and Corners of Old England, 490.

Ministry of House and Local Government Report. 1947.†

[4] Porter, S. 2009. The great plague. Amberley Publishing.

[3] Sherwood, C. 2014, January 9. Personal Communication.

Shrewsbury, J. & Findlay D. 2005. A history of bubonic plague in the British Isles. Cambridge University Press.

Warrington Guardian. 2006, September 30. The Plague House was a ‘wonderful’ place to live.

†via Warrington Museum, as associated with the plague stone accession record.

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