New details of Bristol’s 17th-century plague hospital revealed

Across the country, plague victims were lodged in basic pesthouses constructed during earlier outbreaks.

Archival research has uncovered new details surrounding a successful quarantine hospital established in Bristol during the Great Plague of 1665-6; the findings have shed light on the hospital’s medical treatments, staff, spending, and its precise location.

The Great Plague of 1665-6 was the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Britain, wiping out an estimated 100,000 people in London alone. Yet Bristol, despite being a bustling city with strong commerce links to the capital, suffered only a hundred or so deaths. This exceptionally low mortality rate prompted Alex Beard, an undergraduate history student at the University of Bristol, to find out why.

Document dated 5 December 1665: Bristol City Council agrees to lease ‘the House called the Forelorne Hope belonging to Mr Butcher and the barne thareunto adjoyning’ as a Pesthouse. Image: Bristol Archives.

In accordance with government guidelines, Bristol had imposed a strict quarantine on goods and people entering the city from June 1665. Public gatherings were banned, and infected houses were placed under armed guard. Across the country, plague victims were lodged in basic pesthouses constructed during earlier outbreaks.

However, whilst examining 17th-century Common Council Proceedings housed in the Bristol Archives, Alex discovered that the Council took further steps in stemming the outbreak, turning a house gloomily named ‘Forlorn Hope’ into a plague hospital.

In the Mayor’s Audit Books, Alex identified payments for food and medicines for the hospital, as well as a record of temporary huts with sailcloth roofs being constructed in response to increased patient numbers.

Documents revealed that the hospital was run by surgeon John Dunbarr, with the assistance of other physicians, and he was awarded £44 and granted freedom of the city ‘For his late faithfull service at the Pesthouse’.

‘The treatments offered at the pesthouse probably didn’t help much,’ said Alex. ‘But the pesthouse took people away from their crowded households in the centre of the city. That limited the spread of the infection.’

Research by Dr Evan Jones, Alex’s supervisor, also shed new light on where the pesthouse was situated.

John Rocque’s 1743 plan of Bristol. The county boundaries, the location of the Forlorn Hope Estate, and the position of the house are highlighted. Image: Harvard University / Bristol Record Society.

Examining 19th-century estate plans of Bristol County, Dr Jones identified the limits of a 13-acre farm known as the Forlorn Hope Estate, and a 1743 map of Bristol further confirmed the precise location of the house. It was likely chosen for its isolated position at the edge of the county.

Any surviving remains of the hospital are likely hidden beneath what was St Nicholas Road, an area which has seen a great deal of housing development since the 19th-century.

The manuscripts and sources gathered by Alex and Dr Jones have now been published by the Bristol Record Society.