From plague to pandemic

The Hob Stone and the Plague Stone on Hob Moor in York
The Plague Stone used to be filled with vinegar in an attempt to disinfect hands and coins in the 17th century

Since March 2020, when we experienced the most serious global pandemic in living memory, we have grown accustomed to measures introduced to inhibit the spread of Covid and other infectious diseases. As a nation, we are far more vigilant now about things like hand hygiene, and know not to cough or sneeze into our hands, but rather into a tissue or our elbows, which are not going to come into contact with surfaces that will be touched by other people.

Some years ago, way before the pandemic struck, it wasn’t uncommon for us to see overseas visitors wearing face masks as they travelled around our tourist hotspots. We regarded it as rather weird, an overreaction to the threat from pollution and germs. How different we feel now! Today, rather than raise a sceptical eyebrow to a person in a face mask, we assume that they either have a health problem, or are protecting us from their own contagious ailment. Wearing face masks has become a way of life.

But social distancing and hand sanitising as methods of protecting the population is not a recent invention. On a dog walk in an area known as Hob Moor in York, I noticed a pair of stones at the side of the path. I’d walked past them many times without paying any attention, but this time, I stopped, because I realised they were more than just your average stones.

They are in fact of great historical significance. One is a well-weathered lump of rock standing about waist height, and the other sits at its feet, and is a largely rectangular shape, with a bowl-shaped hollow full of water in the centre containing a few coins.

Once I’d noticed them, I read the little plaque next to them, and discovered that the tall one was the ‘Hob Stone’, a primitive sculpture depicting the ‘Knight of the Roos family’, and is believed to have been created in about 1317. It was moved to the moor in around 1717 and had an inscription on the back that read:

‘This image, Long Hob’s name has bore

Who was a knight in time of yore

And gave this Common to ye poor’.

And this little ditty tells us how the area came to be known as Hob Moor.

The other stone has a much more sobering history, and is known as the Plague Stone. Although England had been hit by epidemics in the past, in 1603, a more aggressive pestilence struck in London. The average death rate during an outbreak back then was about 1 in 15 (for comparison, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, in the UK it was about 1 in 1500). But this plague saw death rates soar to 1 in 3. Just like our then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the recently-crowned King James I tried to prevent the spread by imposing rules, such as ordering infected folk to stay at home, and instructing those they lived with to not mingle with others outside the household. Clothing and bedding touched by the sick had to be burnt.

York, which at the time was the country’s second city, tried to protect itself, and banned all vagrants and itinerants from entering the city. But what the officials overlooked was the part that cramped living conditions played in the spread of disease. On 4th June 1604, the first case of the plague was recorded in the crowded parish of St Michael’s, Spurriergate. A state of lockdown was imposed, and anyone infected was ordered to move beyond the city walls.

Camps were set up in the Clementhorpe and Hob Moor areas, where temporary wooden lodges were built to house the sick. In a precursor to our own pandemic, generous-hearted citizens would take food to the afflicted and deposit it by the Plague Stone, making sure they kept their distance. Those with money also asked for food to be sent to them, and they would leave payment in the Plague Stone’s bowl. It would be filled with vinegar, which at the time they believed would disinfect the coins. They were sadly mistaken, and the disease went on to claim the lives of more than 2,000 residents in a city with a population of less than 18,000.

Today, people still drop loose change into the little stone bowl, and the money is donated to the local hospice.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 10th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 8th February 2023

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