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How social distancing and hand-sanitising were practised in the 17th century

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York’s plague victims in 1604 had to leave the walled city and were delivered food at a safe distance with payment made in a primitive hand sanitiser.

The plague stone on Hob Moor, York (PA)

Self-isolation, social distancing and hand sanitising may be concepts that have come to the fore with the Covid-19 outbreak but they are tried and trusted historic methods in warding off infection.

A small stone on a moor about a mile south of York’s city walls tells the story of how the city dealt with an outbreak of the plague in times gone by.

In 1604 an epidemic in what was then widely considered England’s second city prompted similar strict measures to protect the wider public from those unfortunate enough to have fallen ill.

A plaque explaining the purpose of the plague stone (PA)
A plaque explaining the purpose of the plague stone (PA)

Sufferers had to leave the walled city and travel a safe distance away to protect the other inhabitants.

Hob Moor, a site near the city’s modern-day racecourse, where cows still graze but which is now surrounded by housing estates and allotments, with the North East railway line cutting through it, was one such refuge.

Micklegate Bar, one of four principal gates to the city and the one traditionally used as an entry point by a visiting monarch, would have been the likely point where those affected would leave the city.

They took refuge in wooden lodges on the moor a mile south which were built for the purpose of distancing the general population inside the walls from those suffering the ravages of the disease.

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Those afflicted would have passed through Mickelgate Bar, one of four exits from the city walls on their way to isolation on Hob Moor (PA)
Those afflicted would have passed through Micklegate Bar, one of four exits from the city walls on their way to isolation on Hob Moor (PA)

The plague stone stands next to the taller Hob Stone which depicts a knight but has been eroded over hundreds of years to the point that the warrior is scarcely recognisable.

The plague stone is where food was delivered to the afflicted during an outbreak in 1604, according to the plaque next to it.

It would be picked up by the grateful recipients at an appropriate distance from those who delivered it.

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Payment for the food was left in the depression with vinegar or water to try and prevent transmission (PA)
The plague stone stands next to the Hob Stone featuring the weather-eroded likeness of a knight (PA)

In the stone is a depression where payment for the food was placed.

It is thought that the indentation was filled with water or vinegar to help prevent transmission of the illness, with the liquid acting as a sanitiser when the payment was collected.

York still retains its set of historic walls which surrounds virtually the whole of the old city.

A section of York's city walls with the Minster in the background (PA)
A section of York’s city walls with the Minster in the background (PA)

Those living inside the old city boundary badly affected by Covid-19 will still likely have to travel beyond it for treatment.

This time the district hospital at Clifton to the north of the city centre will be their likely destination.

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