Weymouth Black Death : JustWeymouth

Weymouth Black Death History

Weymouth Black Death - The Black Death arrives in Weymouth

The Black death arrives in Weymouth

The black death arrived on the south coast of England in the summer of 1348, reaching land on the Melcombe Regis side of Weymouth harbour and decimating the local population before rapidly spreading throughout the county and beyond. A plaque can be found in Melcombe Regis identifying the initial Black Death Weymouth outbreak of 1348 close to the Weymouth harbourside.

Weymouth History in medieval times

Medieval Weymouth was very different to the modern Weymouth that is so popular with holidaymakers today. The medieval ports of Weymouth along with Melcombe Regis across the harbour together make up what we know as Weymouth in modern times. The beautiful Weymouth holiday town is made up of these two bitter trading rivals across the River Wey. In Medieval times, up to 1571, Weymouth was made up of the buildings on the Nothe side (West) of the harbour. The buildings on the east side of Weymouth harbour, Weymouth beach and the town were a seperate port called Melcombe Regis. This was the way the two ports existed for the first few centuries of their existence right up until Elizabeth the 1st united the two through her act of parliament in 1571. This brought the towns of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis together to form the Weymouth holiday town today known as Weymouth and bringing to an end years of bitter rivalry for trade. However, at the time of the landing of the black death in Weymouth (Melcombe Regis side) in 1348, the two ports were entirely seperate. The population of Weymouth today is estimated above 50,000 compared to Englands population of 55M, at the time the black death arrived in Weymouth on that fateful day in 1348, the population would have been a fraction of this. There are no sources detailing the population of Weymouth in the 1300s but the entire population of England is thought to have been no more than 7 million.

The Black Death Weymouth - the first known case of black death arrives in Melcombe Regis, a small trading port on the Dorset coast.

The year is 1348 and the small ports on the river Wey of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis are bitter trading rivals for valuable goods arriving from the continent aboard the many merchant ships arriving in port. It is a 'little before the feast of St John the Baptist'* and both Weymouth and Melcombe Regis are going about their daily business as small trading ports on Englands south coast. Little do any of the inhabitants know what terrible pestilence awaits as more ships arrive into port. Much of continental Europe has been reeling from the 'Black Death' or the 'great pestilence' as it was known, for the last 2 years but as yet it hasn't reached the shores of England. However in the heat of a warm June in 1348, all of this is about to change when the first case showing symptoms of the deadly bubonic plague occured in the port of Melcombe Regis - The Weymouth Black death outbreak has arrived. The Black Death in Melcombe Regis spread quickly killing up to 50% of the population, before reaching other Dorset towns, destroying populations throughout the south of England before the end of the summer, reaching the overcrowded city of London and the north within a year where it was estimated to have killed between 20% and 60% of the entire population of England. The Black Death refers to the first outbreak of bubonic plague (the Melcombe Regis Black death outbreak of 1348 that spread throughout the country). Plague continued to cause outbreaks that ravaged the population for the next 300 years. A plaque can be found close to Weymouth Harbour today identifying the Weymouth Black Death outbreak in the summer of 1348 as one of the less welcome periods of Weymouth history.

*The feast of St John the Baptist celebrates the birth of the christian prophet John the baptist who according to the bible prophesised the birth of Jesus and baptised him. The feast of St John the Baptist is held annually on the 24th June which would indicate that the outbreak of Black Death in Weymouth started around this time and therefore probably arrived in port around the middle of June taking into account the incubation period of the Bubonic plague. Bubonic plague has not be completely eradicated and still causes occasional outbreaks in the modern world, usually in less developed countries.

How did the black death change life in England?

In medieval England, like the rest of Europe, life was fragile - at 'the mercy of God', famines and illness had dramatic affects on populations and mortality was very high, the majority of the population depended entirely on the land meaning they were dependent on the local landowners for their survival. This created the medieval practice of 'Serfdom' which basically made the worker a slave and totally dependent on the landowner for whom he worked. This was a system that had been used in England for many, many years, landowners ruled their land and 'serfs' who worked that land were owned by the landowner which put them at the mercy of that landowner. With the black death causing deaths of between 1.4 million to 4.2 million people out of a total population of 7 million suddenly a huge shortage of land labour became apparent and for the first time, the people who worked the land found themselves in greater demand, the serf could demand a better standard of living and this they did. Although landowners tried to resist any increases in wages and freedom for their workers, in reality there was little they could do, the lands needed working and they they were forced to accept the situation. This resulted in greater freedom and wages for the average man in medieval England for the first time, meaning that the terrible loss of life caused by the black death actually led to the downfall of the serf system across both England and Europe effectively destroying slavery.

How did post Black Death Weymouth life change?

Though very few records exist from the 1300s, it is reasonable to assume that the rapid decline in the population of Weymouth caused by the black death will have led to a similar effect on demand for healthy workers and wage demands of the few workers that survived would have increased in a trading port such as Weymouth. The workers in Weymouth are likely to have therefore found themselves in greater demand, providing them with better wages and slightly more freedom as a result of the dreadful mortality rates of the black death. The Plague returned in different forms for the next 300 years The Black Death died out in the winter of 1350 but deadly outbreaks occured through England throughout the next 300 years. The first occurance of the plague - the Black Death - was certainly the most devastating of these plagues but with no cure and little understanding of the causes or how it was transmitted all were extremely devastating and for many years fear gripped the nation that the plague would return. The last large outbreak of plague in England was the great plague of London in the 1600s, this of course is believed to have died out in some parts due to the Great Fire of London of 1666. After the first arrival of the Black Death in Weymouth in 1348, fear of its return would have worried inhabitants in Weymouth and across the country for centuries but none would be as deadly as the arrival of the 1348 Weymouth Black Death.