Yale University professor tells tale of how the plague took half of Newcastle

Yale University professor Keith Wrightson tells the story of devastation left by disease in Newcastle in the 1600s

The cramped streets of Newcastle were a breeding ground for the plague

What if some utter calamity was to kill half of the population of Newcastle in just seven months?

It is almost unimaginable. But in 1636, it happened.

The plague carried off 5,631 people between May and November – 47% of Newcastle’s citizens.

What is one of the most dramatically dreadful episodes in Newcastle’s long history is the subject of the most recent book from Keith Wrightson, Professor of History at Yale University.

Born and raised in the North East, he is back in the region to give a free public talk tomorrow in Durham.

And it was in Durham University library that Prof Wrightson came across the signature on a court document which was to spark the detailed research which led to the book.

The deposition to the court of the Bishop of Durham was in a box of historical fragments and was signed by Ralph Tailor in 1637.

The signature style was impressively flamboyant, with loops and swirls.

As Prof Wrightson read on, he found that Ralph Tailor was a scrivener - a writer of legal and “official” documents such as wills.

In 1636, when the plague struck Newcastle, Ralph was 25 and in the first year of his professional life.

As the epidemic raged, he stayed in Newcastle and wrote the wills of the dying, often dictated from behind open windows, doorways or wooden partitions because of the risk of contagion.

Prof Kieth Wrightson's book on Ralph Tailor and the plague which devastated Newcastle
Prof Kieth Wrightson's book on Ralph Tailor and the plague which devastated Newcastle

Prof Wrightson titled his book Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, his City and the Plague, published at £20 by Yale University Press.

For Ralph Tailor and his fellow citizens, it was a summer like no other.

The story of the devastation caused by the disease is told from the perspective of Ralph Tailor and the details in the wills he wrote.

The Durham document tells how Ralph was “sent for” to go to the home of plague victim Thomas Holmes.

He climbed up on to the town walls near the Quayside and stood next to the window of the loft room in which Thomas Holmes was confined, as he dictated his will.

The outbreak began in the crowded and insanitary alleys and cramped homes of Sandgate near the river and spread to other parts of the town.

Between May 31 and November 5, Ralph Tailor wrote at least 14 of the 57 wills of Newcastle plague victims which have survived, and also inventories of their household goods.

Whole families perished. The authorities sought to tackle the disaster by giving financial assistance, confining the infected to their “shut up” homes, or moving them to lodges on the Town Moor.

It was on a trip back to his regional roots that Prof Wrightson’s attention was caught by Ralph Tailor’s name.

Prof Wrightson was born in Croxdale in County Durham and grew up in Greencroft near Annfield Plain and then Chester-le-Street. He went to primary school in Catchgate and won a scholarship to Dame Allan’s School in Newcastle.

Trips home have been part of his roles as Visiting Fellow and Visiting Professor at Newcastle and Northumbria universities.

He is an honorary professor in the department of history at Durham University which, along with Newcastle University, has awarded Prof Wrightson an honorary degree.

His body of work indicates why the honours have come his way.

His book English Society, 1580-1680 has been in continuous print since 1982.

In collaboration with David Levine, Prof Wrightson wrote Poverty and Piety in an English Village, and The Making of an Industrial Society: Whickham 1560-1765.

That focuses on the Whickham which is now part of Gateshead, and where the development of coal mining transformed the area in three generations. It was followed by Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain, and then Ralph Tailor.

Last month, Prof Wrightson was invited to talk to the Scriveners Company of Newcastle about how he researched and wrote his latest book.

He says: “I discovered Ralph Tailor when going through records and coming across his very beautiful signature.

“When the plague broke out, Ralph Tailor stayed in Newcastle to write his documents.”

There are touching passages in the wills, with the dying asking to be buried as near to their late spouses as possible.

Elizabeth Cooke asked to be buried in St Nicholas churchyard “neare unto the hawthorne tree there.”

Prof Wrightson muses: “What can it have meant to her?” People made provision in their wills for bequests to be passed on to others if immediate family members also fell victim to the disease.

He says: “It was an absolutely catastrophic time – probably the worst outbreak in the UK. But they coped remarkably well, given the scale of the disaster.”

Ralph Tailor had grown up in Durham and had come to Newcastle at the age of 15 or 16 to be apprenticed.

He married, almost certainly in 1637, to Grace, who died in 1662.

Ralph Tailor died in 1669, aged 58.

He had survived the plague by 33 years.

  • Prof Wrightson’s talk tomorrow for Durham County Local History Society is at 5.15pm at Alington House, North Bailey, Durham, on “time consciousness” among people in the North East between the 16th and 18th Centuries.


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