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Sir William Petty and the Great Plague of 1665

For Key Stages 1 or 2

Sir William Petty was a doctor of Physic, a lecturing anatomist and a polymath natural philosopher. He lived in London when the Plague began (sensibly leaving once the Bills of Mortality showed one hundred plague deaths per week – it was his ‘rule of thumb’!).

He studied the Great Plague, and published a treatise concerning how to avoid it in future. To your children he is a friendly and eccentric fellow with lots of stories to tell, some strange, some fascinating, some grisly, some sad.

If there are two classes studying the plague, I can do a session with each (morning and afternoon). There are ways of working with three or four classes too. Having a whole day with one class, however, allows me to do that bit more.

(Note: I would not advise combining this information rich experience with the Great Fire of London session all in one day – it would be far too much for the children to take on board!)

When should Sir William visit?

The session works well whether or not the children already know about the Great Plague. If the session introduces the topic, then I can give them all a shared and rich experience to refer back to throughout their subsequent work. If it is the end of their study, I can conversationally explore and add to their existing knowledge, bringing it all ‘to life’. If I visit in the middle of your topic, then a bit of both applies, and the day provides an extra boost to their levels of enthusiasm! Sir William, being a man of 1665, explains a lot about what happened and what people thought at the time. You, the teacher, can later explain what we now know about the plague in modern times.

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Bring Out Your Dead!

Session Format


  • Myself: I explain who and what I am, as well as why I am visiting & what I am going to tell them about, including the horrible symptoms of the plague.
  • London: Where and what is London? What did it look like at the time of the Plague? We all look at my huge map to learn about London’s geography.

The Story of the Plague

This is the main component of the session and incorporates several breaks along the way to do practical exercises.

  • Story: This is told vividly and with all sorts of interesting facts and events included: how the plague started and spread; how the deaths were recorded and the dead were buried; how people tried to fight it or simply fled; and stories of events during that terrible year. The children hear what Sir William, the King and other important people did, as well as what Sir William’s friend Samuel Pepys did. Finally we discuss the number of deaths. 
  • Practical exercises: There is an activity about what sort of things happened when families were ‘shut up’ in their houses which involves all the children, even when multiple classes are involved. Also, all the children get to respond to teacher-chosen ‘volunteers’ who ring the plague bell and who dress up as the frightening plague doctor! Several individuals also have a chance to examine certain ‘wards’ and medicines used at the time, under close supervision.

About the Plague

I discuss all sorts with the children, including the many other illnesses at the time, the variety of opinions people had about what caused the plague and all sorts of preventatives and cures that were employed by the desperate Londoners.

Some Work for Sir William

I can begin this work with the class if I am working with one class all day. If it is a two class day with half the day with each class, then I can set this task for each class to do later.

Posters with instructions concerning all the different ways to avoid the plague.

  • How to stop it arriving in the first place.
  • How to stop it spreading through the streets.
  • How to prevent yourself and your family from catching it.

A portrait of a gentleman

When I work with one class for the whole day, I can admit to some jealousy over Samuel Pepys’ portraits and ask the class if they might sketch a portrait of me, posing for them to do so. This way they remember the details of my late 1660’s clothing.