In a world still reeling from a global pandemic, it can feel fresh to look at situations from the past that echo that which we have lived through the past few years. But a moment in history that has remained tucked away in my brain for years, ever since reading a historical fiction novel about it in my teenage years, is the isolation of the village of Eyam during the plague. The story struck a chord with me – and in recent years with many others, as shown by the numerous news articles which referred to the lockdown during our own. So, let’s explore what really happened in this small Peak District village around 260 years ago.
“The Plague”, as it is often known, refers to Bubonic Plague, a horrendous disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Symptoms appear very soon after infection and include chills, high fever, muscle cramps, seizures, and most famously painful lymph gland swellings called bubos. The bacteria has been found in remains from up to 5,000 years ago, but its most well-known outbreak first emerged in the 14th century, and was initially known as the Black Death. It hit Western Eurasia and North Africa and across the space of just 7 years up to 200 million people may have died or as much as 50% of the world’s population at the time, making it by far the deadliest known pandemic in the world’s history.
After this initial outbreak, the disease became endemic and every few years or decades a new outbreak would appear. This lasted for centuries until the Great Plague of London of 1665-6, which was the last major epidemic of the plague to hit England. The tragedy of the large death count from this incident was compounded by the Great Fire of London which happened just as the city was beginning to recover. But, despite its name, the Great Plague did not solely hit London. As people fled the city they took the disease with them, and early outbreaks had already been caused across the country by goods leaving London. One village to be hit was that of Eyam in Derbyshire.
According to legend, late in the summer of 1665 – just as the plague was hitting its peak in London – a bundle of cloth was delivered to the house of the village tailor, Alexander Hadfield. When his assistant George Viccars opened the parcel he found the material within to be damp, and so he hung by the fire to dry out. Little did he know that by doing so he was awakening some fleas which had been bundled in with the fabric. These fleas were infected with the deadly plague, and soon hopped on to the unsuspecting assistant.
Shortly after, Viccars developed symptoms that would have terrified the villagers, knowing the doom it portended. Before long he died from the plague, and within the month 5 others died too. Any hopes that the disease may spare them were dashed throughout autumn when steadily household after household was hit, with whole families being killed. Deaths slowed across winter and spring, perhaps bringing hope to the villagers, but as a hot summer hit the county the infected fleas increased their activity. In June 1666 21 of the villages died, 14 of them across one week. As it became clear the plague was not done with them yet, a radical idea was proposed by the village’s priest.
Reverend William Mompesson was a newcomer to Eyam, having only arrived in April 1664. His predecessor, Thomas Stanley – who was popular with the villagers – had been removed because he refused to acknowledge the 1662 Act of Uniformity introduced by the newly restored King Charles II. This made it compulsory for churches and priests to use Charles’ Book of Common Prayer. However, Eyam had been on the Parliamentary side of the Civil War of a few decades prior, and leant in a more Puritanical direction in line with Oliver Cromwell. They supported their old rector over this intruder and Mompesson had not yet found popularity amongst the villagers.
Mompesson was not a proud man, and he was keen to do what he could to save not only his immediate parishioners, but the people across Derbyshire and beyond. He had a plan, now he just needed help. So he took his idea to Stanley, who had been living on the edge of the village, and persuaded him to get on board.
On 24th June 1666, the same day another resident, Ann Skidmore, was buried, Mompesson and Stanley stood before the congregation. Mompesson proposed a 17th-century lockdown: no one in or out of the village. The Earl of Devonshire, the local landowner, had agreed to send food and supplies to the village to ensure their survival, and the goods would be left at boundary stones outside the immediate vicinity of Eyam. The villagers would leave coins – disinfected with vinegar – as payment, and the plague would not leave the village and infect anyone else.
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Many of the villagers were, understandably, not keen on the idea. But Mompesson’s wisdom in recruiting Stanley paid dividends, as he was able to persuade the residents of Eyam to listen to the plan. Everyone was going to get through this together. They knew that many, if not most of them would die, but at least they could go to God knowing that they had not been responsible for spreading this dreadful disease any further.
The plan sprung into action. The villagers became responsible for themselves, avoiding their neighbours where possible. Instead of burying their families in the churchyard, risking transporting an infected body through the village, they would be buried in their gardens or close to their homes. People would not gather to hear Sunday service in the church, but instead the town stood in the open air at Cucklet Delf, a limestone cavern and bank, appropriately socially distanced from family to family. The “all in it together” atmosphere may have been slightly marred by the fact that Mompesson had already sent his children away from Eyam to Yorkshire to protect them from the plague.
The first two months of the quarantine were devastating for Eyam. In July 56 people died, followed by 78 in August. Entire families were decimated: a woman named Elizabeth Hancock lost her husband and 6 children across the space of one week. Because of the restrictions on burials in the village, Elizabeth had the agony of burying them each – two on the 3rd August, three on the 7th and two across the 9th and 10th – by herself on a small plot by the family’s farm. Legend says that her neighbours from the nearby village of Stoney Middleton watched her go about her work from a nearby hill that overlooked the farm, powerless to help her.
But despite the heavy death toll, some members of the village found that they did not succumb to the disease, even when their entire household did. These people took on caring roles and one man, Marshall Howe, decided to make the most of his immunity. Howe had been infected with the plague when it first hit the village but had lived, and now had strong faith in his resistance. He began to help people bury their dead family members – and helped himself to the victims’ possessions as payment for doing so. Sadly his family were not so lucky, and his wife and two-year-old son were amongst those who died that August.
Mompesson did his best to keep up the spirits of his congregation during this terrifying time, but soon even his spirit was broken. On the 22nd August 1666, at the height of the deaths in Eyam, he and his wife took a walk in the nearby hills that formed part of their quarantined village. The next morning, she died. Mompesson was devastated, and wrote “I am a dying man”. His wife Catherine was fortunate enough to have been granted a church burial right at the church door and her tomb still survives today.
As Autumn 1666 swept in, the deaths were steady but slowing. On the 18th October Francis Morten was buried, followed by William Morten ten days later on the 28th, and finally Abraham Morten on the 1st of November. Abraham was the last recorded plague death in the village. Winter had finally heralded the end.
Once the villagers were sure that no more cases were coming, they trepidatiously came out of their isolation. Plague had ravaged them for 14 months in total, and 259 people had died. Mompesson identified 76 households who had been touched by the plague. It is not known exactly how many people had been living in Eyam as the plague struck, but recent research has identified at least 700 individuals. In the 18th century it had been thought that just 350 people lived in the village and thus that the plague had almost killed everybody, but this new research puts the death toll at between 1/3 and ½ of the population, which is in line with other death toll estimates of other plague outbreaks.
Despite the horrors the village endured, it seems that the survivors wanted to move on and forget what had happened. Centuries later there was little commemoration of the isolation, with tombstones that had been erected to mark the dead being reused for flooring. Even the burial site of Elizabeth Hancock’s family, which became known as the Riley Graves, were almost torn up for ploughing before a local gentleman bought the plot to save it. However, with the bicentenary of the plague in 1865 and 1866, a new light was shed on the events in the village. Eyam came to appreciate the actions of their ancestors and the hardship they endured and it gave something for the village to focus on at a time of growing poverty and declining population.
The local rector proposed a public event to mark the occasion as a way to interest “the general public and the Gentry of the County & get them to help us”. He printed 500 copies of the story of the plague and his event was a huge success. From this time on interest grew in Eyam’s plague story, and many other pieces of literature emerged telling the tale. By the 1930s, Eyam had become a tourist destination for those interested in the plague.
But Eyam’s surviving descendants had been impacted in other ways that were still to be discovered. A scientific study undertaken in 2000 suggested that a human gene mutation which is known to provide immunity from HIV could have been what protected the villagers who appeared to be immune to the plague. Their descendants who were still in the village were found to have a higher-than-average percentage of the mutation.
Eyam remains a small village today; at the turn of the century there were less than 1,000 people living there, a population not much larger than the days before the plague. The village still survives on tourist trade from their dark history, but the local museum also makes a point to highlight the other interesting parts of their history such as being a mining and manufacturing hub which revolutionised silk design. Whilst some stories and landmarks may have a fanciful air of elaboration, there is no denying the hardships of those people four centuries ago who lived through hell to try and protect the lives of strangers.
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