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Dorset’s plague port

The devastating Black Death that swept through England in the 14th century first entered the country at what is now Weymouth, as Mark Burrows recounts

The official seal of the port of Melcombe Regis, used in the 14th century

In what is regarded as the first example of biological warfare, Tartars had catapulted victims of the Black Death over the walls of the Black Sea port of Kaffa. The disease had invaded every corner of continental Europe, killing without mercy or discrimination. Even the Channel Islands had been ravaged to the extent that King Edward III had written to Jersey’s Governor, with humane consideration, to cancel the taxes of the few remaining fishermen. But now, in the summer of 1348, the Black Death was massing across the Channel. It also lurked among the hundreds of merchant and military ships that thronged our coastal waters and dipped in and out of English ports.

The plague was caused by a bacillus carried by fleas in turn transported by the black rat (Rattus rattus). These parasites bit humans with the same relish as they bit rodents. The disease had been long endemic in the Far East. Creeping westwards across Eurasia, its passage was facilitated by land and sea trading routes as the agile black rats climbed their way on and off ships. The plague’s advent had been awaited with dread in Western Europe. France and Spain were hit in 1347, and Britain was anticipating the inevitable.

While the bacterium could remain active in a decaying carcass for many days, the fleas sought out new hosts once death had begun cooling the rodent or person. People typically succumbed after a period of about six days following infection. Before the onset of symptoms they might journey substantial distances, unwittingly carrying their unwanted and undetected baggage with them. With the appearance of the first buboes the excruciating end was nigh. Blackening necrotic pustules tainted the skin and lymph nodes swelled to the size of apples. By now fever, delirium and unbearable headaches accompanied the skin’s black patches and lumps, and death ensued for sixty per cent of the infected within ten days.

A modern view of the harbour shows how the two ports faced each other: Melcombe Regis to the right and Weymouth to the left

If the most compelling of contemporary chroniclers are to be believed – and without doubt the plague entered other English ports within days or months – it was at Melcombe Regis where it first jumped ship onto English soil: ‘In this year 1348, in Melcombe, in the county of Dorset, a little before the feast of St John the Baptist [24 June], two ships, one of them from Bristol, came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of a terrible pestilence and, through him, the men of that town of Melcombe were the first to be infected.’ The medieval Grey Friars’ chronicler may well have been correct that the first infectious bacilli disembarked in Melcombe ahead of Bristol and Southampton. Whether or not the infection was transported by a sailor from Gascony is more debatable. Ships yo-yoed from Melcombe Regis to many continental ports and back, as well as the Channel Islands. The plague could have arrived from anywhere. A prime candidate was Calais. Following Edward’s victory at Crecy
in 1346, the French port had recently been captured after a lengthy siege, and Melcombe Regis and Weymouth had between them contributed twenty ships and 260 men to support the effort.

In the 14th century, the port east of the Wey’s estuary was Melcombe Regis. Weymouth consisted of the port on the west bank, and the two were not even linked by a bridge until 1597 after amalgamation in 1571. Today the two have been long since merged as the one town of Weymouth, but in the mid-1300s, and despite the common war effort, relations between the folk of the two ports were less than cordial. A mutual mistrust had been stoked into acute hostility in 1322 when a merchant ship leaving Melcombe had been robbed and scuttled by the men of Weymouth and Portland. Undoubtedly the plague’s arrival would have initially intensified finger-pointing and hostility, but soon all of this would have shrivelled into irrelevance as the plague took a lethal hold and disseminated throughout Dorset and far beyond.

As the death toll mounted, many townsfolk and villagers fled the area, so helping to spread the plague. As it made incursions via other ports all around Britain, running from the plague was as futile as it was deadly. In the region around Melcombe Regis, the Isle of Portland suffered particularly badly. The quarries were deserted by the shrinking labour force and the key coastal defences left unmanned. With the plague determined to hold the island within its fist year after year, Edward III felt compelled to order a restriction on the movement of islanders in 1352. By November 1348, Bridport, East Lulworth and Wareham were foundering under the plague’s onslaught.

The plaque on Custom House Quay which records the part that Melcombe Regis played in the story of the Black Death

The only factor limiting the early spread through the West Country was the weather. By and large the summer that year was unusually cool and wet – poor conditions for the breeding of the fleas that carried the disease. The weather did little for general human health, however, lowering resistance and rendering infection more deadly. As winter approached, the plague became airborne by diversifying into its pneumonic form. This meant easy infection from person to person by sneezing and breathing.

It was normal then to believe that plagues, like natural disasters, were products of God’s wrath. These notions remained largely unchallenged despite the plague’s random taking of victims. The good and devout were just as likely to perish as the bad, the lapsed and the heretics. In fact, the clergy succumbed in disproportionately high numbers: the incumbent of West Chickerell soon died and his successor perished within a few months. Bincombe, Osmington and Radipole likewise were soon burying successive clergymen. With the plague advancing north from Melcombe and other southern ports, Edward asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to organise penitential prayers, but the Archbishop was unable to help, himself quickly becoming a plague victim before accomplishing the King’s request. Churchmen, including monks and bishops, were also coming under physical attack from congregations in a manner that only months earlier would have been deemed inconceivable. Desperate people were angered by the failure of the Church’s advice that repentance and prayer would stave off death.

A tableau in Weymouth’s Timewalk shows a plague victim receiving the last rites from a priest while his distraught family look on

The Black Death epidemic obliterated thirty to forty per cent of Europe’s population. Although some areas were relatively unscathed, others suffered terribly. Several southern French cities like Perpignan and Bordeaux lost up to eighty per cent of their inhabitants. Edward III’s daughter, Joan, became a victim in Bordeaux while travelling to marry Prince Pedro of Spain. Usually wealthier people had a slightly better chance of surviving than most. Not only could they escape to the sanctuary of a remote and fortified sanctuary, but they possessed the essentials for greater immunity. By contrast, poverty meant worse diets and hygiene – and higher mortality rates.

By 1351 the plague began to relax its ferocious grip but never truly departed our shores for several hundreds of years, and in the mid-1600s it again became a devastating epidemic. The Great Fire of London in 1666 obliterated the disease along with much else in the capital. By the end of the 17th century the Black Death seems to have completely departed from Europe – the only continent today where the disease is not found among rodent populations.

The municipal borough of Melcombe Regis continued to survive until 1974, when it was incorporated into the district of Weymouth and Portland. Few vestiges of the 14th-century port remain apart from the ancient street grid layout and the road names Melcombe Avenue and Place. Any medieval eyewitness reports of the plague’s carnage in Melcombe Regis and Weymouth appear to have been lost. In addition to the suffering of Portland, it is known that Poole, a port that had provided four ships for the Calais siege, suffered so badly that it needed a century and a half to recover. If chroniclers left more details about the ravages of other southern towns and areas, most concurred on the initial entry point of the Black Death. ‘The cruel pestilence,’ stated a monk from Malmesbury, ‘came from parts over the sea to the south coast of England, into a port called Melcombe, in Dorsetshire.’

A reconstruction of the strange garb that doctors would wear to treat plague patients. The beak-like mask may have been of some use in preventing infection, but it may also have reflected the belief that pressing a plucked chicken to the buboes was a cure for the condition.

1. National Maritime Museum
2. Mark Burrows
3. Mark Burrows
5. Weymouth Museum/Dorset Media Services

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