Joane Cheate

Bubonic Plague (or the Black Death as it was also known) was a deadly disease that caused headaches, vomiting, a swollen tongue and turned a victim’s skin black. It led to caused inflamed glands or ‘buboes’ in the groin and ultimately, death.

After arriving in the UK, the plague spread rapidly and communities were wiped out as corpses littered the streets. To place these numbers in context, over 54,000 people died in London during the summer of 1665.

In 1652, Haverfordwest (perhaps not for the first time) was struck with an outbreak. The first suspected victim died in February and numbers spread rapidly as ‘some of the more affluent members of society fled and the fairs were moved out of town’*. Urgent medical care was clearly needed and came in the form of ‘two barber surgeons, Benjamin Price and James Sonnegon, between whom there was obvious tension and professional rivalry’. However, records also reveal the presence of a ‘strange woman’ to help with the crisis.

Joane Cheate was paid six shillings a week for ‘un­specified nursing duties’, although contemporary reports from other parts of the country describe how women were required as ‘searchers’, (people to identify signs of plague on corpses), and to care for the victims. Furthermore, ‘at Westminster Goodwife Wells was employed to destroy fleas with salt in the churchwarden’s pews’.

In this era of widespread crisis and threat to life, women were still subjected to criticism and suspicion for working outside the home. Rumours were spread of nurses ‘murder(ing) patients, robb(ing) the dead and exhibit(ing) a general callousness and lack of care’. Their judgment was questioned and one writer, Thomas Dekker, even claimed that they were ‘dirty, ugly and unwholesome Haggs, even a Hell in itself’. He went on to compare the receiving of care from a woman as equal to the plague itself.

Joane Cheate received much criticism for her work and was defended in a letter from ‘Mayor Thomas Davids from the Blacke Lyon on Fleete Bridge, London on 17 May 1652’. 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.’ She returned to her home in England with ten shillings in March 1653.

*Hancock, Simon. A Plague Nurse at Haverfordwest in 1652-3 (

Categories: Public Servants | Science & Medicine | Survivors

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