A Death on the Road

A man who died ‘on the Queens highway at Amersall’ on the great north road in August 1582 was a traveller, not a local man. One of the hundreds, probably thousands who passed along the road each year; royal ambassadors, carters, packhorse convoys, stagecoaches and mails, men and women on foot and on horseback. The main road between London and Edinburgh was always busy and Doncaster thrived on being a great thoroughfare.

Its inns and alehouses catered for visitors hungry, thirsty and tired from their travels and if the visitors sometimes departed (as we know from their diaries) complaining about the cost and quality of the innkeepers’ fare and the importuning of the town’s itinerant stocking sellers, others probably left well satisfied with their reception.

But there was a down side as well. Travellers brought trade, but they could also bring less welcome things with them.

Amersall has barely survived as a place name. It fails to appear in the eight-volume Place names of Yorkshire, and it is to be found now only in the name of Amersall Road, Scawthorpe, on the east of the great north road about a mile and a half from the centre of Doncaster. Amersall lay in the township of Bentley in 1582 and Bentley, up to the end of the nineteenth century, was part of the parish of Arksey. So it was in the parish churchyard of Arksey that the unfortunate traveller was buried.

He must have been found by the villagers while he was still alive, because the burial records register his name and where he came from. Four hundred years later we can read the entry for 30th August 1582 which the parish clerk made in the register, now in the safekeeping of Doncaster Archives.

The dead man was called William Munkton who ‘had lived in a town called Thurske in the north country’, which we can take to be Thirsk in North Yorkshire, 35 miles north on the great north road. The unusually detailed burial entry also records a very disturbing fact, ‘he had “died” of pestilence’.

Was it bubonic plague, the disease that had devastated Europe as the ‘Black Death’ in the 1340’s and which caused the great plague of London in 1665? Or was it some lesser infectious disease which had caused his death? It is, of course, impossible to say at this distance in time but for the people of the parish of Arksey, the question was academic. From September 1582 to early June 1583, 65 burials took place in the parish and all but eight were identified as deaths caused by the pestilence. This was more than three times as many burials than usually took place in a year. It seems as if William Munkton had left the parish with a deadly legacy. But the consequences of his death had certainly not ended with the epidemic which overtook Arksey. Indeed, they had scarcely begun, for on 18th September 1582, the burial register of St George, Doncaster records the first burial identified with the letter ‘P’. The pestilence had arrived in Doncaster itself, with a far larger population at its mercy.

The results were catastrophic. In November the burial of plague victims became a frequent event in Doncaster and then in 1583 virtually all burials between February and November were identified as fatalities of the epidemic. By the time the disease had run its course, 805 townspeople had been buried. It is likely that at this time the population of the town was about 2000, so that in the course of little more than a year more than a third of the population had perished. In neighbouring Cantley, a list of three dozen burials in September and October 1583 (when normally there would only be one or two) are described as those who died in the plague time.

Not surprisingly, the everyday commercial life of the town had been severely disrupted: the income from the corporation corn mills and the tolls of the borough market were nil in that year. A decade later, it was Doncaster that was taking precautions against the possibility of an epidemic being imported from another market town. In September 1592, the corporation ordered all that visited Howden fair should either not return to their homes or be isolated there and that none of their goods be allowed into the town. Again in 1614, apprehension that ‘if it pleases God to visit the town with sickness so that the market be not kept and the fair holden at St James’ tide’ led to the corporation agreeing to compensate the Mayor for his extraordinary expenses normally paid out of the tolls.

Commercial considerations apart, it needs little imagination to understand what a devastating impact such as those of 1582-3 would have had upon the survivors. No crisis of this size happened again in Doncaster, but there were at least nine lethal epidemics in the following hundred years, judging by the statistics in the Doncaster burial registers on deposit at Doncaster archives. The epidemic of 1646 forced the Moyor’s removal from office. Robert Ince stood accused of flagrant disregard of precautions put into effect to prevent the spread of plague from Swinton and Newark on Trent. The statement of his offences entered in the borough act book describes his conduct as being ‘to the great terror of the town’ and to its ‘great fear and imminent danger’. There is every reason to suppose that these words were not mere empty rhetoric and to suspect that they reflect vivid memories, albeit at second hand, of the catastrophe of sixty years earlier. A crude contemporary woodcutter conveyed the situation well saying, “sudden, widespread death cutting a swathe through a population ignorant of neither cause nor cure”.

No community was immune to epidemic diseases. As we have seen, it can strike in rural communities such as Bentley and Cantley and the epidemic of 1646 in Swinton, which caused such panic in Doncaster, caused 59 fatalities between June and October, six times higher than the usual level of burials. But it was in the town where epidemics took their greatest toll. The Doncaster parish registers show that from the 1550’s, when the first registers began, to the end of the seventeenth century, there was a surplus of burials over baptisms of nearly two thousand.

Like many towns of the age, Doncaster merited a Government Health Warning; ‘Urban Life Can Seriously Damage Your Health’.