The Plague Pit, Old Sheep Market

  • 26 Oct 2020
  • Historical Studies
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At the bottom of Angel Street was the Old Sheepmarket. It was an open space until 1920 when the present roofed structure was built, although built in since. Traditionally, it was the site of the plague pit, Bill Gwilliam  recalled how the piers for the roof was constructed and a mass of bones removed when the foundations were dug out. The site was originally an orchard belonging to the Dominican Friary, and was purchased by the Corporation in 1624 and used for mass burials at the last great outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in Worcester in 1637.

The outbreak of 1637 was as serious for Worcester as the 1655 one was for London. The fear of the plague was great in the 17th century, and in 1624 a pest house was acquired near the Greyfriars, probably in the Blockhouse fields, somewhere at the rear of Laslett's almshouses. In 1637, the pestilence swept away at least one fifth of the City's population; 1,551 victims were buried, of whom 236 were from St. Andrew's parish.

All who could do so fled the City, but most were re used shelter elsewhere and were forced to form a camp at Bevere - on the island and around, where they laid in open fields. There, on the west bank of the river, the Camp Inn until recently commemorates the dreadful days. Both fugitives and those who remained behind were threatened with starvation, for the country people feared the infection, and but for the courage and charity of a few, many must have died also of hunger. Some country people deposited food for the citizens at recognised posts at the outskirts of the City.

John Troy was Vicar of Stoke Prior at the time, and headmaster of the Cathedral School, and he achieved fame as the author of a poem describing the plague at Worcester in 1637. He Wrote:

                                                                              'A sweeping pllague, which from a flowing state                                                                                Brought Worster to the lowest ebb of fate ...'

Industry ceased, grave-digging was the only trade, The verse record:

                                                         'The weaver and his shuttle took their rest,  The loom and lath their wonted knocking ceast.                                                                  Because man's life, more swift that shuttle fled, And heavy lath of thickness broke the tread                                                                               Our Golgotha is grown so small,  That there no room is left for burial'.

The new cemetery at Angel Lane was gorged with corpses, and a further pit was dug in the churchyard of St. Oswald's. Casual reference in the poem indicate that the plague had been preluded by previous outbreaks which should have served as warnings, and prompted sanitary precautions, but it was not until the mid-19th century that the City had any effective drainage,

The City Chambers Records of this period show that in 1631, 1632 and 1634 payments were made by the Corporation 'to the King's Player's by Mr. Mayor's direccon to prevent their playings in this city for fear of infecconer, 13s 4d'. Also that there was a plan to bring Barbourne Brook to the City Ditch, but nothing was done.

Earlier recorded outbreaks of the plague occurred in 1583 and it was very serious in St. John's, where 38 died out of a tiny population. Again in 1610, St John's suffered a visitation when 83 died out of 130 homes, including the Vicar, Thomas Leonard, and seven of his children.