A Plague Nurse at Haverfordwest in 1652-3
By Simon Hancock
For sixteenth and seventeenth-century urban dwellers experiencing the horrors of a plague outbreak were by no means uncommon. The dreadful visitation to London in 1665, which claimed many thousands of lives, remained in the public consciousness for generations. Nevertheless, between the two dreadful parameters of the Black Death and the plague of 1665, hardly a year went by without some community across Great Britain being ravaged by the plague.1 Outbreaks could devastate towns and villages. Colchester, for example, experienced outbreaks of plague in 1579, 1586, 1597, 1603, 1626, 1631, 1644 and 1665-66. During the latter outbreak around 4,500-5,000 people died. Plague did indeed say much about the nature and development of pre-industrial society.2
The plague, which broke out at Haverfordwest in 1652, has been ably described by both the Rev. J. R. Phillips  3 and much more recently by John Howells . 4 It is unnecessary to provide a complete narrative of the eight dreadful months of 1652 nevertheless, there are some interesting themes, which can be explored further.
The outbreak of plague in 1652 was certainly the most traumatic episode of its kind, but it was by no means unprecedented. In his analysis of the registers of St. Mary’s Church, Haverfordwest, the Rev. J. R. Phillips noted an unusually high mortality in 1613 with some 96 burials.5 Conclusive evidence is lacking but this could well have been a plague year. Plague, if indeed it was, was no respecter of wealth or status. The victims of 1613 included members of the local elite like Jenken Vawer [brother of William Vawer, who established the charity bearing his name] down to ‘a little beggar boy of the Almshouse’ .6 The scale of the 1652 plague outbreak easily exceeded anything experienced before.
According to the Rev. James Phillips, the plague reached Haverfordwest in October 1651, brought to the town, so tradition has it, on market day by sailors whose ships lay at anchor in Milford Haven.7 However, the earliest date when the plague reaches the pages of the corporation records is February 1652. On 18 February one person was sick and three or four houses were under surveillance.8 Thereafter events moved with terrifying rapidity as the numbers who succumbed to plague increased and there was social and economic dislocation as some of the more affluent members of society fled and the fairs were moved out of town. The common council wrote to Thomas Davids, mayor [who was in London, to lobby for Haverfordwest to be relieved from its onerous taxation], on 26 April 1652 indicating that seventeen people had died since he left town and another sixty were locked up within the gates of ‘the castle towne’.9
The council rented a large house in St. Martin’s Parish from Alderman William Williams, which they used as a pesthouse. 10 The ‘ tarrcoats’, or those men who cared for the sick and buried the dead used another building, described as ‘ Edwards Lloyd’s house’.11 Later, another house in Cokey Street [now City Road] was used for convalescents while Mr. Bateman’s stable’ was used as a cleansing house.’2 Medical care was in the hands of two barber surgeons, Benjamin Price and James Sonnegon, between whom there was obvious tension and professional rivalry. James Phillips makes reference to the presence of ‘the strange woman’ at Edward Lloyd’s house. 13 This is the first enigmatic allusion to an unnamed woman who risked the perils of infection and provided comfort to the afflicted. ‘The woman’ thus rendered great public service alongside the much better known barber surgeons, the ‘tarrcoats’, and the Rev. Stephen Love, puritan vicar of St. Thomas’ Church.
We are only afforded fleeting glimpses of the nursing care provided by the woman. Nevertheless, her presence affords an opportunity to examine the wider role of women during periods of crisis induced by the plague.
It is debatable whether early modern sick nursing existed before the seventeenth century, although the task was identified by contemporaries with the terrors of smallpox, typhus and plague. Although outbreaks of plague spelt economic disaster for many, it did represent opportunity for others. Local corporations required the services of searchers, people to identify signs of plague on corpses, and also nurses and nursekeepers, to care for the victims. Many of these individuals were women.
We will never know exactly what work the ‘strange woman’ did at Haverfordwest. It must have involved distasteful and gruesome tasks. In Reading, Mary Jerome, widow, ‘was sworne to be a viewer and searcher of all the bodyes that shall dye within this boroughe, and truly to report and certifye to her knowledge of what disease they dyed’.14 Employing sick nurses during times of plague must have been commonplace during the seventeenth century. In 1603, two women were appointed at Ipswich to attend the sick and act as undertakers. 15 Similarly, at Westminster Goodwife Wells was employed to destroy fleas with salt in the churchwarden’s pews.16
The remuneration paid to female sick nurses and searchers varied considerably but frequently seems not to have adequately repaid the loyalty and service displayed by these women in this most hazardous of medical employments. Cash was usually paid although clothes were sometimes accepted in part-payment. The substantial sum of 8 shillings a week was paid to a woman who treated a family at Sandwich. 17 Elsewhere, ‘Lancashire Bess’ was paid a mere 2s 6d for a week’s attendance upon victims .18 Duties varied but involved, in one instance, dressing meat, cleaning clothes and making the homes of victims inhabitable.
Mistrust, criticism and negative stereotyping of female nurses, usually at the hands of male detractors, was commonplace and arose from dislike of any form of female independence. According to black legend, they murdered patients, robbed the dead and exhibited a general callousness and lack of care. One contemporary wrote that ‘their judgement was as dim as their eyes ‘ .19 Thomas Dekker’s The shutting up of infected houses as it is practised in England soberly debated  did much to raise the spectre of predatory, thieving nurses. His invective included the charge that they were ‘dirty, ugly and unwholesome Haggs, even a Hell in itself’. He deplored the plight of the afflicted ‘to lye at the mercy of a strange woman is sad: to leave wife, children, plate, jewels to the ingenuity of poverty is worse; but who can express the misery of being exposed to their rapine that have nothing of the woman left but shape?’
In a similar vein, Thomas Vincent’s God’s Terrible Voice In The City  alleged that the afflicted were more afraid of their nurses ‘than the plague itself’. Hodge’s Lomologia  similarly accused female sick nurses of greed and other wicked practises. A slightly more positive contemporary image of nurses emerges in John Bel1’s London’s Remembrancer . He claimed that women searchers were generally fit for their office.
The Haverfordwest female plague nurse, if we may give her that title through her role rather than employment situation, seems to have been active early on during the outbreak. In the seventh week of the pestilence ‘the woman’ was paid £1 10s. 20 It is now possible to identify the woman as Joane Cheate and she was paid six shillings a week for her sadly unspecified nursing duties.
That Joane Cheate [to retain the contemporary spelling] was also the object of negative comment and gossiping from the townsfolk is clear. In a letter written by the absentee mayor, Thomas Davids from the Blacke Lyon on Fleete Bridge, London on 17 May 1652, to William Bowen, William Meyler and Jenkin Howell, we learn that criticism of Joane was circulating. The comments had obviously reached the mayor’s ear’s since he wrote: ‘Lett the visitor woman be encouraged and not be abused by idle people, as I heare she is [.. .] for I am sure that providense guided her thither and that shee under God has bene as instrument of good.’ 21
A week later, on 24 May 1652, William Bowen wrote to Thomas Davids alluding to the envy between Price and Sonneygon and he confessed he could not hear of any abuse done to ‘the woman’ .22 Abuse, as James Phillips observed, implied actual ill-treatment not just scurrilous language: ‘a pathetic glimpse of Christian self-sacrifice of which these few words are the only record on earth’.23
Gradually the plague subsided and by 24 November 1652 only one person was left in the pesthouse.24 In March 1653 Joane Cheate was given the sum of ten shillings towards her charge, thus allowing her to ‘goe to her friends in England’.25 We will never know whether Joane Cheate was a plague nurse travelling between towns and villages so afflicted or whether she just happened to be in Haverfordwest when the plague struck. What ever the explanation it is clear that she was not a native of Haverfordwest and was very much an outsider, hence the description of ‘strange woman’. Joane was not the only female to provide valiant support for the sick. One Alice White appears in the mayoral accounts as being one who attended a sick family during the plague.26
Joane Cheate is one of an immense multitude of people whose lives largely, but not completely escaped the records of history. A shadowy figure labouring against both plague and prejudice during Haverfordwest’s darkest days of the seventeenth century.
- Charles Mullett, ‘The Bubonic Plague in England: A problem in Public Health’ Bulletin q(the History of Medicine, 20 (1946), 299.
- G. Doolittle, ‘The effects of the plague on a provincial town in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, Medical History, 19:4 (l 975), 333.
- J. Phillips, ‘The Plague at Haverfordwest 1651-2’, Archaeologia Cambrensis, Fifth Series, Vol. XII, No. XLVI (1895), 81-95.
- John Howells, ‘ Haverfordwest and the Plague’. Dillwyn Miles [ed.] A History of Haverfordwest (Llandysul, 1999), 191-198.
- J. Phillips , ‘The Oldest Parish Registers in Pembrokeshire.’ Archaeologia Cambrensis, Sixth Series, Vol. HJ (1903), 311.
- Ibid. , 3 13 .
- J. Phillips, ‘The Plague at Haverfordwest’, op. cit., 81.
- Pembrokeshire Record Office [hereafter Pembs.RO], Haverfordwest Borough Records, No.286
- RO, Haverfordwest Borough Records, No. 293.
- John Howells , ‘Haverfordwest and the Plague’, cit., 196.
- Rev. J. Phillips, ‘The Plague at Haverfordwest’, op. cit., 87.
- John Howells, ‘ Haverfordwest and the Plague’, op. , 196.
- Rev. J. Phillip s, The Plague at Haverfordwest’, op. cit., 87.
- Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1982), 249-250.
- F. D. Shrewsbury, A History of the Bubonic Plague in the British Isles (Cambridge, 1970), 271.
- Ibid., 304.
- Paul Slack, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (London 1985), 289.
- F. D. Shrewsbury, A History of the Bubonic Plague , op. cit., 415.
- Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, Women in Early Modern England 1550-1720 (Oxford, 1998),
- Pembs. RO., Haverfordwest Borough Records, No. 548.
- Pembs. RO ., Haverfordwest Borough Records, No. 299.
- Pembs. RO., Haverfordwest Borough Records, No. 301 [a].
- Rev. J. Phillips, ‘The Plague at Haverfordwes t’ , op. cit., 89.
- Pembs.RO., Haverfordwest Borough Records, Nos. 548; 557.
- Pembs.RO., Haverfordwest Borough Records, No. 83/3. ‘Accounts of William Walter, late maior, 1653.’