Musicians in a time of Plague: London 1665.

Times are hard for us musicians and people in the musical trades. No one’s buying violins when two months worth of gigs have been cancelled in the blink of an eye. With that in mind, the journal-letters of Stephen Bing, a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral in the Great Plague of 1665 may be a poignant reminder that however bad things are, they could always be worse. Bless you all and remain safe. Benjamin Hebbert writes: 

Most of us who know about Italian instrument makers know that the plague that swept the north of the country in the 1630s and wiped out every Brescian and Cremonese violin maker of note excepting only Nicolo Amati. Here in Britain a similar story belongs to the Great Plague that began in 1665.

Those of us who know about instrument makers know that St Paul’s Churchyard, the precinct around St Paul’s Cathedral, was a famous area for making and buying instruments towards the end of the seventeenth century. The area had risen as an important centre because of the enterprises of the singers in the Cathedral choir.

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St Paul’s Cathedral as it looked before the Fire of London of 1666

This commercialism can be explained by going back to the 1640s and the  English Civil War when the clergy had been disbanded and the cathedral was famously used to stable the horses of the parliamentary army. Through the Interregnum of Oliver Cromwell many of these singers maintained their livelihoods as music teachers around London and further afield in Royalist households and elsewhere where music remained as a valued cultural expression. Singers from the Cathedral, like former members of the King’s Music, continued to be the highest status ‘music masters’ that could be found. The result was that when the cathedral reformed in 1660 upon the Restoration of King Charles II, these musicians were quick to reclaim their former places because of the prestige that they held (and to prevent other people from obtaining the same prestige), but equally eager to maintain their careers teaching.

With the added advantage of a pay settlement that included leases of houses surrounding the churchyard, these musicians quickly became entrepreneurial devoting rooms to become teaching studios, and these musicians were able to satisfy their high-paying clients around the daily routine of Cathedral Service. Slowly this gathered momentum. Even prior to in 1658 as the Puritan grip over the country relented there had been some call for a new concert hall for London, and Samuel Hartlib wrote that even Oliver Cromwell’s sons had put money into a subscription for it.

 

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The Swan and Harp in St Paul’s Alley, formerly the Mitre, by J.M. Emil in 1895 during demolition.

Ultimately William Paget, an entrepreneurial vintner established a purpose-built concert venue at the Sign of the Mitre in partnership with Robert Hubert alias Forges an adventurer and collector of curiosities, creating an astonishing public museum. The venue would eventually give way to the Swan and Mitre (known by satirists as the Goose and Gridiron) that played host to the Musician’s Company, and to Christopher Wren’s Premier Grand Lodge of Freemasons.

Vilem Tausky’s Essay for Viola, played by Peter Sheppard Skaerved on the 1641 viola made by Jacob Rayman in Southwark. An instrument that survived Civil War, Plague and the Fire of London, and poignant listening for our times. 

 

Inevitably other musicians found employment within the music ‘schools’ established by members of the Cathedral choir, and ultimately musical instrument sellers and makers arrived on the scene as well. When Samuel Pepys, the diarist, looked for help with his lutes and viols in the early 1660s, it was through the agency of Richard Hunt in St Paul’s Churchyard that he met his viol maker, Christopher Wise, and the Hills who repaired lutes. In the 1690s, long after the plague had passed, this would be one of the most populous neighbourhood of any European capital city for instrument makers. It would take years for a recovery to take place after the Plague and the Fire of London, but for a short time in the early 1660s, St Paul’s Churchyard had flourished at the heart of London’s musical society as it shed the shackles of Cromwell’s Puritan government.

After five years in which England flourished culturally and economically under the new king Charles II, the Great Plague hit in 1665. For our people in St Paul’s our first hint that things were going bad for the area is when we see the adventurer and collector, Robert Hubert alias Forges altering the advertisements for his public museum from ‘the musick house’ to  ‘the place formerly called the Musick House’. Confirming the end of the concert venue, Hubert advertised the sale of ‘a fair Organ to be sold fit for Church of Chapel’.

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Woodcut of the Great Plague. 1. A searcher of the dead; 2. Dog-killers; 3 & 4. Exodus from London; 5. & 6. Bodies being taken for burial; 7. Mass burial in plague pits; 8. Mourners defy crowd prohibition; 9. Return of the rich

We may presume that the downfall came as the population sought measures to avoid the Plague, one solution that they had fallen upon was to cease attending public meeting places. Hence during a time when people depended upon God for their protection, they nevertheless  ceased to go to church on Sundays, finding quiet times during the week to attend to their devotion, and public meetings such as concerts were no longer considered safe. Presumably for Hubert, trying to maintain the last vestiges of his business, citing its location at what was ‘formerly’ a music house may have been an attempt to provide public confidence to maintain visitors.

Meanwhile in the Cathedral, William Sancroft, the Bishop of London had fled to the Rose and Crown in Tonbridge during the worst period of the plague for the period from July 1665 until January 1666, leaving the musician and vicar-choral Stephen Bing in charge of maintaining daily life in the Cathedral. It is Bing’s frequent letters written to the Bishop provide a vivid account of life in the cathedral precincts. With the official departure of the Bishop, many of the clergy fled their posts, and in a letter dated 24 July 1665, Bing wote that, ‘Mr Juett, Price Fisher Warner are out of Towne & Mr. Webb allmost for he is not so often with us as I wish he were; Mr SubDeane, Masters Clifford & Quarterman whoe only speaks of going out of Towne, are diligent & also 3 of the Vicars Mr Cockrey, Simpson & Morrice th’other are out of the City’.

These are poignant letters. In the terror of the plague … the clerics who were brave enough to remain at the Cathedral provided inestimable value to their parishioners, at the front line of helping people to keep their spirits up when medicine was of no practical help …

These are poignant letters. In the terror of the plague in a time when people looked to God more than they do now, the clerics who were brave enough to remain at the Cathedral provided inestimable value to their parishioners, at the front line of helping people to keep their spirits up when medicine was of no practical help in surviving or avoiding the Plague.  Later in the same letter he reports how the plague had spread around St Paul’s.

The Lord have mercy look upon us: its said there will be a great increase this week of the last bill [of mortality] wch was. 1089. its more in St Gregorys then at your departure. & in an Alley in PaterNoster Rowe & a man & his wife – fallen sick in the PettiCanons what the issue of it will be Thursday next will more inform you by which opportunity I shall send you the weekly bill & the Diurnal …

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The Weekly Bills of Mortality, the only way that the population could maintain an understanding about the spread of the plague.

Trade in London was hit badly by plague, and Bing describes a street scene on 27 July, his words pointedly calling into question the morals and folly of those, like the Bishop of London, that had fled to the country:

The increase of God’s judgment deads peoples hearts that trading strangely ceaseth & bills of Exchange are not accepted so yt they shutt up their Shopps. & such a feare possesseth them as its wonderfull to see how they hurrey into the Country. as though ye same God were not there as yt is in ye City

People frequent ye Church as before excepting on Sundays & ye last Holydaye on wch wee had a Sermon & shall have another on the Fast day. The increase of God’s judgment deads peoples hearts that trading strangely ceaseth & bills of Exchange are not accepted so yt they shutt up their Shopps. & such a feare possesseth them as its wonderfull to see how they hurrey into the Country. as though ye same God were not there as yt is in ye City so that those that are living & lived in ye great sicknes time saw, nor knew not ye like when there dyed 4000 a week. I pray God to prevent a sad Sequel.

By 3 August the choir had decreased even further ‘for now there are only 3 Petticanons left vixt. myself Mr Clifford & Masters with 2 vicars Mr Simpson & Morrice, the rest are out of Towne: Mr Portington lies at the point of death’.

On 7 August, Bing wrote ‘Honest Mr Portington is dead whom I buryed in Satturday last’, and cases of the plague were surrounding the cathedral on every side.

Bing survived the plague, but Morrice the last of the petty canons who had remained with him succumbed on 11 November, and the fate of the music house at the Miter was sealed. Music in St Paul’s Churchyard was at its lowest point. Shops were shut up, and the music house had failed to the point that the organ had been put up for sale. Those were the worst months of the Plague. The Fire of London would ultimately see an end to the tragedy in the following year.

These people are us – musicians from the past in a time of crisis.

I always found these letters particularly poignant: I have copied the entire correspondence below. These people are us – musicians from the past in a time of crisis. With modern medicine we aren’t seeing a fraction of the risk that they encountered. Somehow it brings strength to know what they went through on the front line of survial, serving their communities at the height of London’s Great Plague of 1665. Stay safe. xx

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Wenceslas Hollar’s 1666 eye-witness engraving of the burning cathedral in 1666. With the fire, the Plague came to an end and a healthier more sanitary city was built.

 

 

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