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
*Hancock, Simon. A Plague Nurse at Haverfordwest in 1652-3 (http://www.pembrokeshirehistoricalsociety.co.uk/plague-nurse-haverfordwest-1652-3/)