Tippling Point – Frank McNally on similarities between the coronavirus crisis and the Great Plague of 1665

Investigating the strange situation London pubs found themselves in on St Patrick's Day, a Guardian reporter visited The Tipperary on Fleet Street, one of the oldest bars in the city. Business was bad. The "landlord" expected to be down £10,000 on a normal March 17th, as customers stayed away in droves.

And yet there were drinkers present. Someone else on the premises explained the British publicans’ dilemma. “Right now, we’re in limbo. We can only close if we’re told to close.”

Although it wasn’t always The Tipperary, there has been a pub on the site since 1667. That’s a portentous date, being the year after the Great Fire, which itself followed hard on the heels of Europe’s last major outbreak of bubonic plague (1665). Largely confined to London, with Fleet Street as ground zero, that disaster is thought to have killed at least 100,000.

For light relief during the great coronavirus lockdown of 2020, I’ve been reading Daniel Defoe’s account of the events of 1665: A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe had been only a child at the time, so wasn’t writing from memory.


But such is the historic accuracy of the book, and so vivid its descriptions, that it reads as reportage rather than fiction.

It was signed "H.F.", a presumed nod to his uncle Henry Foe (the "De" in Defoe's surname was an affectation adopted for the purposes of social climbing), who may have supplied the source material, making the book an early example of what, three centuries later, would be called the "New Journalism".

Defoe’s account suggests that other things haven’t changed much since 1665. London pubs didn’t close then either, it seems, or not fully anyway. By contrast, “all plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler-play [a kind of sword-fighting], or such-liked causes of assemblies” were prohibited by the city mayor. So too was all “public feasting, and […] dinners at taverns, ale-houses and other places of common entertainment”.

But as for mere drinking, then as now, a ban on that must have been considered a step too far. The mayor went so far only as to decree “that disorderly tippling in taverns, ale-houses, coffee-houses, and cellars be severely looked into, as the common sin of this time and greatest occasion of dispersing the plague. And that no company of persons be suffered to remain or come into any tavern, ale-house, or coffee-house to drink after nine of the clock in the evening.”

So it was just a curfew, basically, with last orders brought forward to 9pm. This at the same time as what Defoe considered the cruellest law imposed in the summer of 1665, whereby the households of anyone infected could be locked up, from the outside, and kept under police guard for 20 days.

Today, when “Red Cross” means something else entirely, it’s sobering to read that it was a sign of damnation then. According to the Journal, the city order added: “That every [infected] house visited be marked with a red cross of a foot long in the middle of the door, evident to be seen, and with these usually printed words, that is to say, Lord, have mercy upon us.”

It’s a bit of a stretch, admittedly, to see Defoe’s book as an early example of the New Journalism, since as he points out in the introduction, the old journalism hadn’t been invented yet then.

Writing 60 years later, when it had, he appears to consider its advent a mixed blessing: “We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since.”

Elsewhere, comparing ye olden times of 1665 to the hyperconnected world of 1722, he reminds us that stories and rumours “did not spread instantly over the whole nation [then], as they do now”.

It’s probably just as well he didn’t live to see WhatsApp.

Getting back to “Tipperary” and “Tippling houses”, by the way, those two terms now feature side-by-side in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. “Tipperary” in this case refers to the song from the first World War, while a “Tippling House” is said to have been a “contemptuous name for a tavern” (the word “tippler”, curiously, used to refer to the tavern keeper, rather than his customers).

I say the two terms are side-by-side in the dictionary, but that’s not quite true. They are separated by another Tipp-related phenomenon, the existence of which had somehow escaped me until now.  The “Tipperary Rifle”, according to Brewer’s, is an alternative name for a “shillelagh”.