PortCities London

The port in literature

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) is one of the great figures of English literature in the early 18th century. He is best known for his novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but he wrote many other books and hundreds of pamphlets. His varied life included two spells in prison and bankruptcy.

A Journal of the Plague Year

Daniel Defoe, 1660-1731.
View full size imageDaniel Defoe (1660-1731). © NMM
Published in 1722, this seems to be a memoir of the Great Plague of London in 1665. Told in the first person, this is a vivid description of the City in the grip of the fearful epidemic. However, the Journal is a work of historical fiction rather than a genuine memoir, as Defoe was only five years old at the time of the Great Plague. Even so, Defoe's painstaking research into the course of the epidemic lends this work an air of authenticity. Several passages describe the effect of the epidemic on the port districts. 

The collapse of the port

A man in a wherry handling barrels, by Willem Van de Velde, the Younger.
View full size imageA man in a wherry handling barrels, by Willem Van de Velde, the Younger. © NMM
Defoe vividly describes how the plague destroyed London's sea-borne trade, and showed a deep understanding of just how many people depended on that trade for their livelihoods.



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As merchandising was at a full stop, for very few ships ventured to come up the river and none at all went out, so all the extraordinary officers of the customs, likewise the watermen, carmen, porters, and all the poor whose labour depended upon the
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merchants, were at once dismissed and put out of business...