St. Paul's converted into a Pest-house. Artist: John Franklin. Drawn and engraved by Franklin, 1841, reprinted 1847. Steel-plate etching, 9.9 cm high by 13.9 cm wide. An illustration for W. H. Ainsworth’s historical romance, Old St. Paul's: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire (London: Parry, Blenkharn & Co., 1847): facing p. 216 in Book the Third, "June 1665," Chapter V, "How Saint Paul's was used as a Pest-House." Ainsworth initially serialised the novel in The Sunday Times, from 3 January through 26 December 1841 in fifty-one weekly instalments, which Ainsworth almost immediately reconfigured as twelve monthly parts for publication that same year, a pattern more famously adopted by Charles Dickens in 1859 for A Tale of Two Cities (June-December).

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Passage Illustrated

In less than a week after it had been converted into a pest-house, the cathedral was crowded to overflowing. Upwards of three hundred pallets were set up in the nave, in the aisles, in the transepts, and in the choir, and even in the chapels. But these proving insufficient, many poor wretches who were brought thither were placed on the cold flags, and protected only by a single blanket. At night the scene was really terrific. The imperfect light borne by the attendants fell on the couches, and revealed the livid countenances of their occupants; while the vaulted roof rang with shrieks and groans so horrible and heart-piercing as to be scarcely endured, except by those whose nerves were firmly strung, or had become blunted by their constant recurrence. At such times, too, some unhappy creature, frenzied by agony, would burst from his couch, and rend the air with his cries, until overtaken and overpowered by his attendants. On one occasion, it happened that a poor wretch, who had been thus caught, broke loose a second time, and darting through a door leading to the stone staircase in the northern transept gained the ambulatory, and being closely followed, to escape his pursuers, sprang through one of the arched openings, and falling from a height of near sixty feet, was dashed in pieces on the flagged floor beneath.

A walk through this mighty lazar-house would have furnished a wholesome lesson to the most reckless observer. It seemed to contain all the sick of the city. And yet it was not so. Hundreds were expiring in their own dwellings, and the other pest-houses continued crowded as before. Still, as a far greater number of the infected were here congregated, and could be seen at one view, the picture was incomparably more impressive. Every part of the cathedral was occupied. Those who could not find room inside it crouched beneath the columns of the portico on rugs or blankets, and implored the chirurgeons as they passed to attend them. Want of room also drove others into Saint Faith's, and here the scene was, if possible, more hideous. In this dismal region it was found impossible to obtain a free circulation of air, and consequently the pestilential effluvia, unable to escape, acquired such malignancy, that it was almost certain destruction to inhale it. After a time, few of the nurses and attendants would venture thither; and to take a patient to Saint Faith's was considered tantamount to consigning him to the grave. [Book the Third, "June 1665," Chapter V, "How Saint Paul's was used as a Pest-House," pp. 210-11]

Related Material: Phiz's Frontispiece and Title-page Vignette (1847)


Ainsworth, William Harrison. Old Saint Paul's: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire. London: Parry, Blenkharn & Co., 1847. This was a one-volume reprint of the three-decker published by Hugh Cunningham in 1841. Routledge re-issued the single volume with the Franklin illustrations prefaced by two additional engravings by Hablot Knight Brown.

Vann, J. Don. "William Harrison Ainsworth: Old Saint Paul's in the Sunday Times, 3 January-26 December 1841." Victorian Novels in Serial. New York: MLA, 1985. Pp. 21-22.

Last modified 4 November 2018