Shropshire Star

How the Black Death turned the West Midlands a vision of hell on earth –Mike Lockley

When death came to our door, it came swiftly, its intensity hidden by innocent symptoms.

The Black Death swept Europe and wiped out around 40 per cent of our population

Death announced itself with a mere sneeze, a hacking cough. Then came raging fever before death revealed its true might by scattering buboes – hideous, oozing swellings – on skin.

From snuffles to sores, death did its duty in under a week.

“Ring-a-ring o; roses, a pocket full of posies. A-tishoo! A tishoo! We all fall down.”

The nursery rhyme is a childish and macabre summary of the way Black Death ravaged its victims.

When the fleas feasted on you, a losing fight for life soon began.

And between 40 to 60 per cent of England’s population, estimated to be a mere seven million, fell.

Covid, the most recent pandemic to sweep these shores, was a global disaster, it showed even modern mankind can be rendered powerless by pathogens.

Black Death made the 14th century vision of hell a reality on earth. Other outbreaks followed until the 1700s. None had such virus violence.

The West Midlands lived under the shadow of Black Death – the most destructive pandemic in global history – for three horrific years, although the Doomsday disease lingered for much longer. From 1348, thousands succumbed, although exact figures are unknown.

A squalid, festering, mud hut mound of impoverished humanity known as Lye Waste was wasted by the plague.

In a time before motorised transport, it took a mere eight months for the disease to spread from London to Halesowen. And there it hit with hurricane force, claiming 40 per cent of the population.

In Shropshire’s tight-knit rural communities, where Black Death arrived in spring, 1349, families worked the soil together and piled bodies on carts together. The sickening cycle continued until there was no one left to work the soil or carry the bodies.

Hamlets simply disappeared.

In Shrewsbury a “strange sickness” took hold. Those who lost their lives to it were bundled in three plague pits, one under what is now Grope Lane.

Grope Lane, Shrewsbury

Other undetected mass graves, crammed with victims, remain dotted around the region, historians believe.

A landscape yet to be smothered by the fumes and fog of industrialisation, where people lived within inches of livestock and, therefore, rats, was levelled.

In his book “The World Upside Down, Black Death In England”, Professor Jim Bolton wrote: “It is very difficult for us to imagine the impact of plague on these small rural communities where a village might have no more than 400 or 500 inhabitants.

“Few settlements were totally depopulated, but in most others whole families must have been wiped out and few can have been spared some loss, since the plague killed indiscriminately, striking both rich and poor alike.”

The rich, however, could afford to flee hotspots. The poor could not.

But has this catastrophic contagion been correctly diagnosed by history? Was this “Great Mortality” really the work of bubonic plague, the crippling Yersinia pestis bacteria passed from rats to humans by fleas?

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