This article is from "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford" by Norman Hidden, 2009.
Pest House and Plague in 17th century Hungerford
Local speculation has tried to identify the leper house with a plot in Freeman’s Marsh marked Pest House on the 1819 Enclosure Award map. There is however a gap of some 4 centuries between the last reference to the leper house and the first known reference to the Pest House; and their locations are quite different.
The origin of the Pest House almost certainly arose in the 17th century from the need for an isolation house for those suffering from the plague. Justices of the Peace for the Newbury Division in 1637 reported that ‘about the beginning of November one died of the plague in Hungerford, whereupon order was taken for a house to be erected in the fields, also for his family to be removed, for watchmen, and for a tax to be made for their relief and that of the rest of the poor (being very many), and all of them to be kept within the town from going abroad for six weeks ’.
An even earlier reference to a pest house in Hungerford arises from an alleged breach of promise suit, which was taken to the Dean of Sarum’s court in 1604/5 . In the course of the Complaint it was stated that a man in Hungerford named William Heath lost his wife when his house was infected by the plague. He and his three children thereupon ‘were removed to a pest house appointed for that purpose’ and nursed by a widow who ‘was assigned to have the custody and keeping of him and his children’. The parish register confirms the existence of plague in 1603. During the twelve months from the 19 September 1603 to September 1604 the number of burial entries in the parish register marked ‘plague’ amounted to 46 out of a total of 67. In a normal year, such as those immediately preceding and following the plague, the number of burial entries averaged 24.
William Heath’s wife Elizabeth died of the plague 4th June 1604 and his son William on 18th June. William Heath senior, thanks no doubt to his isolation in the pest house, survived and so did his other children. Nevertheless, although the incident reveals that the local authorities were able to take steps to ‘appoint’ a pest house and to ‘assign’ infected persons to it, it is not clear that the house was a permanent institution rather than one that may have been used temporarily in emergency. Unless this were so it is difficult to understand the instruction of the justices in 1637, requiring a special new building to be erected ‘in the fields’. The personal care, or perhaps after-care, which was provided for William after his wife’s death may have helped save William’s life, but it also led to a breach of promise suit. It appears that ‘a nurse who was given clothes in part payment in Hungerford claimed that the gift constituted a promise of marriage by her employer ’.
Hungerford parish register shows that in 1609-10 the town suffered once again heavy mortality due to the plague. There were twelve burials in the month of September 1609, and thirty-four burials during the full year, of which fourteen are definitely stated to be plague, and probably a number of the remaining twenty were also plague victims but unrecorded as such. After this year the word ‘plague’ is no longer entered into the burials register. This does not mean that there were no further outbreaks, merely that they are unreported. In 1625, for instance, the total number of deaths (68 entries, about twice the ‘normal’ average) was a high one and may well indicate the pre valence of plague that year.
That outbreaks of plague continued to occur is testified by the return, already mentioned, made in February 1637 by the J.P.s for the Newbury Division to the Justice of Assizes. A study of Hungerford parish register burials in 1636, however, reveals no particular reference which would in any way indicate a plague death either in November or in any other month of that year.
In 1643/4 there is the mark P against some burials and it is possible that this indicates plague victims:
- December 16th: Ann d/o Thomas Garmye
- January 7th: Elizabeth d/o Joan Townsend, widow
- January 26th: William s/o John Blundy
- March 10th: Ann w/o James Clifford
- March 13th: Maudelyne d/o William Martyne
- April 17th: Abigail w/o Thomas Webbe
Some of the earlier entries of plague refer to local residents of Charnham Street and sometimes to travellers staying at one or other of the inns there. Lying astride the London-Bristol road and being a convenient staging post, Charnham Street received a large influx of those travelling between these two large centres of population. In many cases they may have brought the plague with them. These were often the wealthier travellers. It is therefore strange that neither the year of the Great Plague of London in 1665 nor the following year of 1666 was notable in Hungerford for any unusual increase in burials or other signs of plague.
The Pest House marked in the 1819 Enclosure Award map still exists,a timber-framed cottage thought to be of 17th century origin, set in the meadow at the edge of Freeman’s Marsh. In its garden a spring of pure, sparkling water bubbles to the surface, as it must have done through the centuries, supplying the needs of those early inmates.
In 1848 the Tithe Award map shows another Pest House, located at Sanham Green. The implication must be that the older pest house had by then ceased to be used as such.
According to local sources, the building in Freeman’s Marsh was used in the 19th century as a tavern called ‘The Barge Inn’ where it presumably catered not only to the needs of bargemen on the canal, but also to a new estate of labourers’ houses which had begun to develop in the fields there.
In the 19th century the Hungerford parish registers regularly list alongside the baptisms the parents’ occupation and place of residence; and from 1833 onwards until 1869 the location Freeman’s Marsh frequently appears.
In 1890 the property, then known as 3-5 Marsh cottages was conveyed by George Hidden and George Taylor to Miss Martin, who became Mrs. Taylor; and she conveyed it in 1920 to Joshua Macklin . Since then it has passed through several hands, latterly in the possession of Mr & Mrs M.J. Walker and renamed Marshgate Cottage. A sketch of the cottage has been kindly provided by Mr. M.J.Walker.
1 Returns made by J.P.s Newbury Division 1636-7 Vol.cccxlvii No.40.
2 W.R.O.: D5/19/20 f.86.
3 Dean of Sarum’s Court Act Book No.20 f.86r [W.R.O.: D5/19/20]
4 Deed in Possession of Mr. M.J.Walker.