26.0 — the waterman
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe 1722
A waterman is a river worker who transfers passengers across and along city centre rivers and estuaries in the United…
Samuel Pepys, who commuted by water from his home to his job at the Admiralty, refers to the death of his waterman in his diaries of 1665 revealing the particular vulnerability of Thames watermen to infection during the Great Plague of London.
26.1 — Here I saw a poor man walking on the bank…
Much about the same time I walked out into the fields towards Bow; for I had a great mind to see how things were managed in the river and among the ships;
and as I had some concern in shipping, I had a notion that it had been one of the best ways of securing one’s self from the infection to have retired into a ship;
and musing how to satisfy my curiosity in that point, I turned away over the fields from Bow to Bromley, and down to Blackwall to the stairs which are there for landing or taking water.
Here I saw a poor man walking on the bank, or sea-wall, as they call it, by himself.
I walked a while also about, seeing the houses all shut up.
At last I fell into some talk, at a distance, with this poor man; first I asked him how people did thereabouts.
‘Alas, sir!’ says he, ‘almost desolate; all dead or sick. Here are very few families in this part, or in that village’ (pointing at Poplar), ‘where half of them are not dead already, and the rest sick.’
26.2 — Then he pointing to one house,
‘There they are all dead’, said he, ‘and the house stands open; nobody dares go into it.
A poor thief’, says he, ‘ventured in to steal something, but he paid dear for his theft, for he was carried to the churchyard too last night.’
Then he pointed to several other houses.
‘There’, says he, ‘they are all dead, the man and his wife, and five children.
There’, says he, ‘they are shut up; you see a watchman at the door’; and so of other houses.
‘Why,’ says I, ‘what do you here all alone?’
‘Why,’ says he, ‘I am a poor, desolate man; it has pleased God I am not yet visited, though my family is, and one of my children dead.’
‘How do you mean, then,’ said I, ‘that you are not visited?’
‘Why,’ says he, ‘that’s my house’ (pointing to a very little, low-boarded house), ‘and there my poor wife and two children live,’ said he, ‘if they may be said to live, for my wife and one of the children are visited, but I do not come at them.’
And with that word I saw the tears run very plentifully down his face; and so they did down mine too, I assure you.
‘But,’ said I, ‘why do you not come at them? How can you abandon your own flesh and blood?’
‘Oh, sir,’ says he, ‘the Lord forbid! I do not abandon them;
I work for them as much as I am able; and, blessed be the Lord, I keep them from want’;
and with that I observed he lifted up his eyes to heaven, with a countenance that presently told me I had happened on a man that was no hypocrite, but a serious, religious, good man, and his ejaculation was an expression of thankfulness that, in such a condition as he was in, he should be able to say his family did not want.
‘Well,’ says I, ‘honest man, that is a great mercy as things go now with the poor.
But how do you live, then, and how are you kept from the dreadful calamity that is now upon us all?’
‘Why, sir,’ says he, ‘I am a waterman, and there’s my boat,’ says he, ‘and the boat serves me for a house.
I work in it in the day, and I sleep in it in the night; and what I get I lay down upon that stone,’ says he, showing me a broad stone on the other side of the street, a good way from his house; ‘and then,’ says he, ‘I halloo, and call to them till I make them hear; and they come and fetch it.’
‘Well, friend,’ says I, ‘but how can you get any money as a waterman? Does any body go by water these times?’
‘Yes, sir,’ says he, ‘in the way I am employed there does.
Do you see there,’ says he, ‘five ships lie at anchor’ (pointing down the river a good way below the town), ‘and do you see’, says he, ‘eight or ten ships lie at the chain there, and at anchor yonder?’ (pointing above the town).
‘All those ships have families on board, of their merchants and owners, and such-like, who have locked themselves up and live on board, close shut in, for fear of the infection;
and I tend on them to fetch things for them, carry letters, and do what is absolutely necessary, that they may not be obliged to come on shore;
and every night I fasten my boat on board one of the ship’s boats, and there I sleep by myself, and, blessed be God, I am preserved hitherto.’
‘Well,’ said I, ‘friend, but will they let you come on board after you have been on shore here, when this is such a terrible place, and so infected as it is?’
‘Why, as to that,’ said he, ‘I very seldom go up the ship-side, but deliver what I bring to their boat, or lie by the side, and they hoist it on board.
If I did, I think they are in no danger from me, for I never go into any house on shore, or touch anybody, no, not of my own family; but I fetch provisions for them.’
‘Nay,’ says I, ‘but that may be worse, for you must have those provisions of somebody or other;
and since all this part of the town is so infected, it is dangerous so much as to speak with anybody, for the village’, said I, ‘is, as it were, the beginning of London, though it be at some distance from it.’
‘That is true,’ added he; ‘but you do not understand me right;
I do not buy provisions for them here.
I row up to Greenwich and buy fresh meat there, and sometimes I row down the river to Woolwich and buy there;
then I go to single farm-houses on the Kentish side, where I am known, and buy fowls and eggs and butter, and bring to the ships, as they direct me, sometimes one, sometimes the other.
I seldom come on shore here, and I came now only to call on my wife and hear how my family do, and give them a little money, which I received last night.’
‘Poor man!’ said I; ‘and how much hast thou gotten for them?’
‘I have gotten four shillings,’ said he, ‘which is a great sum, as things go now with poor men;
but they have given me a bag of bread too, and a salt fish and some flesh; so all helps out.’
‘Well,’ said I, ‘and have you given it them yet?’
‘No,’ said he; ‘but I have called, and my wife has answered that she cannot come out yet, but in half-an-hour she hopes to come, and I am waiting for her.
Poor woman!’ says he, ‘she is brought sadly down.
She has a swelling, and it is broke, and I hope she will recover; but I fear the child will die, but it is the Lord — ’
Here he stopped, and wept very much.
‘Well, honest friend,’ said I, ‘thou hast a sure Comforter, if thou hast brought thyself to be resigned to the will of God; He is dealing with us all in judgement.’
‘Oh, sir!’ says he, ‘it is infinite mercy if any of us are spared, and who am I to repine!’
‘Sayest thou so?’ said I, ‘and how much less is my faith than thine?’
And here my heart smote me, suggesting how much better this poor man’s foundation was on which he stayed in the danger than mine; that he had nowhere to fly; that he had a family to bind him to attendance, which I had not; and mine was mere presumption, his a true dependence and a courage resting on God; and yet that he used all possible caution for his safety.
I turned a little way from the man while these thoughts engaged me, for, indeed, I could no more refrain from tears than he.
At length, after some further talk, the poor woman opened the door and called, ‘Robert, Robert’.
He answered, and bid her stay a few moments and he would come; so he ran down the common stairs to his boat and fetched up a sack, in which was the provisions he had brought from the ships; and when he returned he hallooed again.
Then he went to the great stone which he showed me and emptied the sack, and laid all out, everything by themselves, and then retired;
and his wife came with a little boy to fetch them away, and called and said such a captain had sent such a thing, and such a captain such a thing, and at the end adds, ‘God has sent it all; give thanks to Him.’
When the poor woman had taken up all, she was so weak she could not carry it at once in, though the weight was not much neither;
so she left the biscuit, which was in a little bag, and left a little boy to watch it till she came again.
‘Well, but’, says I to him, ‘did you leave her the four shillings too, which you said was your week’s pay?’
‘Yes, yes,’ says he; ‘you shall hear her own it.’
So he calls again, ‘Rachel, Rachel,’ which it seems was her name, ‘did you take up the money?’
‘Yes,’ said she. ‘How much was it?’ said he.
‘Four shillings and a groat,’ said she.
‘Well, well,’ says he, ‘the Lord keep you all’; and so he turned to go away.
As I could not refrain contributing tears to this man’s story, so neither could I refrain my charity for his assistance.
So I called him, ‘Hark thee, friend,’ said I, ‘come hither, for I believe thou art in health, that I may venture thee’; so I pulled out my hand, which was in my pocket before, ‘Here,’ says I, ‘go and call thy Rachel once more, and give her a little more comfort from me.
God will never forsake a family that trust in Him as thou dost.’ So I gave him four other shillings, and bid him go lay them on the stone and call his wife.
I have not words to express the poor man’s thankfulness, neither could he express it himself but by tears running down his face.
He called his wife, and told her God had moved the heart of a stranger, upon hearing their condition, to give them all that money, and a great deal more such as that he said to her.
The woman, too, made signs of the like thankfulness, as well to Heaven as to me, and joyfully picked it up; and I parted with no money all that year that I thought better bestowed.
26.3 — I then asked the poor man if the distemper had not reached to Greenwich.
He said it had not till about a fortnight before; but that then he feared it had, but that it was only at that end of the town which lay south towards Deptford Bridge;
that he went only to a butcher’s shop and a grocer’s, where he generally bought such things as they sent him for, but was very careful.
I asked him then how it came to pass that those people who had so shut themselves up in the ships had not laid in sufficient stores of all things necessary.
He said some of them had — but, on the other hand, some did not come on board till they were frighted into it and till it was too dangerous for them to go to the proper people to lay in quantities of things, and that he waited on two ships, which he showed me, that had laid in little or nothing but biscuit bread and ship beer, and that he had bought everything else almost for them.
I asked him if there was any more ships that had separated themselves as those had done.
He told me yes, all the way up from the point, right against Greenwich, to within the shore of Limehouse and Redriff, all the ships that could have room rid two and two in the middle of the stream, and that some of them had several families on board.
I asked him if the distemper had not reached them.
He said he believed it had not, except two or three ships whose people had not been so watchful to keep the seamen from going on shore as others had been, and he said it was a very fine sight to see how the ships lay up the Pool.
When he said he was going over to Greenwich as soon as the tide began to come in, I asked if he would let me go with him and bring me back, for that I had a great mind to see how the ships were ranged, as he had told me.
He told me, if I would assure him on the word of a Christian and of an honest man that I had not the distemper, he would.
I assured him that I had not; that it had pleased God to preserve me; that I lived in Whitechappel, but was too impatient of being so long within doors, and that I had ventured out so far for the refreshment of a little air, but that none in my house had so much as been touched with it.
Well, sir,’ says he, ‘as your charity has been moved to pity me and my poor family, sure you cannot have so little pity left as to put yourself into my boat if you were not sound in health which would be nothing less than killing me and ruining my whole family.’
The poor man troubled me so much when he spoke of his family with such a sensible concern and in such an affectionate manner, that I could not satisfy myself at first to go at all.
I told him I would lay aside my curiosity rather than make him uneasy, though I was sure, and very thankful for it, that I had no more distemper upon me than the freshest man in the world.
Well, he would not have me put it off neither, but to let me see how confident he was that I was just to him, now importuned me to go;
so when the tide came up to his boat I went in, and he carried me to Greenwich.
While he bought the things which he had in his charge to buy, I walked up to the top of the hill under which the town stands, and on the east side of the town, to get a prospect of the river.
But it was a surprising sight to see the number of ships which lay in rows, two and two, and some places two or three such lines in the breadth of the river, and this not only up quite to the town, between the houses which we call Ratcliff and Redriff, which they name the Pool, but even down the whole river as far as the head of Long Reach, which is as far as the hills give us leave to see it.
I cannot guess at the number of ships, but I think there must be several hundreds of sail;
and I could not but applaud the contrivance: for ten thousand people and more who attended ship affairs were certainly sheltered here from the violence of the contagion, and lived very safe and very easy.
I returned to my own dwelling very well satisfied with my day’s journey, and particularly with the poor man;
also I rejoiced to see that such little sanctuaries were provided for so many families in a time of such desolation.
I observed also that, as the violence of the plague had increased, so the ships which had families on board removed and went farther off, till, as I was told, some went quite away to sea, and put into such harbours and safe roads on the north coast as they could best come at.
But it was also true that all the people who thus left the land and lived on board the ships were not entirely safe from the infection, for many died and were thrown overboard into the river, some in coffins, and some, as I heard, without coffins, whose bodies were seen sometimes to drive up and down with the tide in the river.
But I believe I may venture to say that in those ships which were thus infected it either happened where the people had recourse to them too late, and did not fly to the ship till they had stayed too long on shore and had the distemper upon them (though perhaps they might not perceive it) and so the distemper did not come to them on board the ships, but they really carried it with them;
or it was in these ships where the poor waterman said they had not had time to furnish themselves with provisions, but were obliged to send often on shore to buy what they had occasion for, or suffered boats to come to them from the shore.
And so the distemper was brought insensibly among them.
26.4 — And here I cannot but take notice that the strange temper of the people of London at that time contributed extremely to their own destruction.
The plague began, as I have observed, at the other end of the town, namely, in Long Acre, Drury Lane, &c., and came on towards the city very gradually and slowly.
It was felt at first in December, then again in February, then again in April, and always but a very little at a time;
then it stopped till May, and even the last week in May there was but seventeen, and all at that end of the town;
and all this while, even so long as till there died above 3000 a week, yet had the people in Redriff, and in Wapping and Ratcliff, on both sides of the river, and almost all Southwark side, a mighty fancy that they should not be visited, or at least that it would not be so violent among them.
- Redriff / Rotherhite
Some people fancied the smell of the pitch and tar, and such other things as oil and rosin and brimstone, which is so much used by all trades relating to shipping, would preserve them.
Others argued it, because it was in its extreamest violence in Westminster and the parish of St Giles and St Andrew, &c., and began to abate again before it came among them — which was true indeed, in part.
For example —
From the 8th to the 15th August—
- St Giles-in-the-Fields 242
- Cripplegate 886
- Stepney 197
- St Margaret, Bermondsey 24
- Rotherhithe 3
- Total this week 4030 From the 15th to the 22nd August—
- St Giles-in-the-Fields 175
- Cripplegate 847
- Stepney 273
- St Margaret, Bermondsey 36
- Rotherhithe 2
- Total this week 5319
26.5 — …they took no care either to fly into the country or shut themselves up…
N.B. — That it was observed the numbers mentioned in Stepney parish at that time were generally all on that side where Stepney parish joined to Shoreditch, which we now call Spittlefields, where the parish of Stepney comes up to the very wall of Shoreditch Churchyard,
and the plague at this time was abated at St Giles-in-the-Fields,
and raged most violently in Cripplegate, Bishopsgate, and Shoreditch parishes;
but there was not ten people a week that died of it in all that part of Stepney parish which takes in Limehouse, Ratcliff Highway, and which are now the parishes of Shadwell and Wapping, even to St Katherine’s by the Tower, till after the whole month of August was expired.
But they paid for it afterwards, as I shall observe by-and-by.
This, I say, made the people of Redriff and Wapping, Ratcliff and Limehouse, so secure, and flatter themselves so much with the plague’s going off without reaching them, that they took no care either to fly into the country or shut themselves up.
Nay, so far were they from stirring that they rather received their friends and relations from the city into their houses, and several from other places really took sanctuary in that part of the town as a Place of safety, and as a place which they thought God would pass over, and not visit as the rest was visited.
And this was the reason that when it came upon them they were more surprised, more unprovided, and more at a loss what to do than they were in other places;
for when it came among them really and with violence, as it did indeed in September and October, there was then no stirring out into the country, nobody would suffer a stranger to come near them, no, nor near the towns where they dwelt;
and, as I have been told, several that wandered into the country on Surrey side were found starved to death in the woods and commons, that country being more open and more woody than any other part so near London, especially about Norwood and the parishes of Camberwell, Dullege, and Lusum, where, it seems, nobody durst relieve the poor distressed people for fear of the infection.
- Lusum / Lewisham
- Dullege / Dulwich
This notion having, as I said, prevailed with the people in that part of the town, was in part the occasion, as I said before, that they had recourse to ships for their retreat;
and where they did this early and with prudence, furnishing themselves so with provisions that they had no need to go on shore for supplies or suffer boats to come on board to bring them, —
I say, where they did so they had certainly the safest retreat of any people whatsoever;
but the distress was such that people ran on board, in their fright, without bread to eat, and some into ships that had no men on board to remove them farther off, or to take the boat and go down the river to buy provisions where it might be done safely, and these often suffered and were infected on board as much as on shore.
26.6 — the watermen died alone in their wherries
As the richer sort got into ships, so the lower rank got into hoys, smacks, lighters, and fishing-boats; and many, especially watermen, lay in their boats;
but those made sad work of it, especially the latter, for, going about for provision, and perhaps to get their subsistence, the infection got in among them and made a fearful havoc;
many of the watermen died alone in their wherries as they rid at their roads, as well as above bridge as below, and were not found sometimes till they were not in condition for anybody to touch or come near them.
Indeed, the distress of the people at this seafaring end of the town was very deplorable, and deserved the greatest commiseration.
But, alas! this was a time when every one’s private safety lay so near them that they had no room to pity the distresses of others; for every one had death, as it were, at his door, and many even in their families, and knew not what to do or whither to fly.
This, I say, took away all compassion; self-preservation, indeed, appeared here to be the first law.
26.7 — For the children ran away from their parents as they languished in the utmost distress.
And in some places, though not so frequent as the other, parents did the like to their children; nay, some dreadful examples there were, and particularly two in one week, of distressed mothers, raving and distracted, killing their own children;
one whereof was not far off from where I dwelt, the poor lunatic creature not living herself long enough to be sensible of the sin of what she had done, much less to be punished for it.
It is not, indeed, to be wondered at: for the danger of immediate death to ourselves took away all bowels of love, all concern for one another.
I speak in general, for there were many instances of immovable affection, pity, and duty in many, and some that came to my knowledge, that is to say, by hearsay; for I shall not take upon me to vouch the truth of the particulars.