Desert Island Doc: ‘Visited with the plague’

Posted on by Fay Curtis.

Our staff and invited guests introduce their favourite documents from the Bristol Archives collections. For this edition, Richard Burley, former Archives Manager, has selected the burial register for the parish of St Nicholas, 1634-1654.

For more than 20 years, archivist Richard Burley talked about this 17th century document while giving tours of Bristol Archives and talks about our collections. The volume contains a deeply moving entry from the year 1645, when bubonic plague took the lives of many citizens.

After the Black Death epidemic of the 14th century, plague broke out in England at intervals for several centuries. In 1645 – twenty years before the Great Plague of London – a severe outbreak affected Bristol and several other towns.

image of three people looking at an archival document of a burial registerThe entry, written sometime after 21 March, records that, ‘This year this city of Bristol was visited with the plague, that 146 persons died in one week and also this parish that 24 died therein in one week, in which time John Truman the Clarke and Phillip Slade the Sexton died by means whereof not only they both but many others are left out of this register.’

Parish registers are one of the most important sources for researching family history but this entry demonstrates that information is sometimes missing from historic records.

In that terrible time, with the clerk and the sexton of the parish both dead and no-one else available to enter the names, it was just not possible to record who had been buried in the parish. The burial entries do not resume until March 1646 and so this note was written to explain why the records were incomplete.

As Richard explains; “The register illustrates the fact that keeping records is a very human action, born out of a need to prove our existence and the fact that we have acted correctly, as we thought best. When we create records, our efforts become the raw material of history.”

Richard worked with thousands of archival documents during his time at Bristol Archives but this volume has particular meaning for him. He says; “Most significant for me is the connection that this passage makes with a distant time in my home town and the people who lived there. Those who use archives cannot forget that they are holding in their hands the lives of people before them who were just like themselves.”

If you’d like to find out more, the reference number for this fascinating document is: P.St N/R/1/g

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