How Eyam’s past experience offers inspiration for current challenges

Eyam village, Derbyshire

Eyam village, Derbyshire - Credit: Archant

To anyone with a passing knowledge of Peak District history, the current Government advice to self-isolate to limit the spread of the coronavirus is a chilling reminder of the “visitation” of the Plague to Eyam nearly 355 years ago.

The book depicting those who died in the plague at Eyam

The book depicting those who died in the plague at Eyam - Credit: Archant

The village’s self-imposed 17th century lockdown, which has been described as ‘one of the most epic stories in the annuals of rural life’, was selflessly designed to try to halt the spread of the dreaded disease to other parts of Derbyshire. But it came at an horrendous cost: a total of 259 victims from 76 families died out of a total population of less than 1,000. Although there had been previous outbreaks in the county in places like Ashbourne, Derby and Chesterfield, the Eyam outbreak appears to have been the last, and the spread seems to have been halted.

The story of ‘the Plague village’ of Eyam is well known, chiefly from the account by local man William Wood in his History and Antiquities of Eyam, first published in 1842. It has now become an essential part of Peak District folklore, but is perhaps worth repeating.

It was in early September 1665 that George Viccars, a journeyman tailor lodging with widow Mary Cooper in a cottage west of the church, received a box of textiles from Plague-ravaged London. When it was opened the contents were found to be musty and damp, so they were put in front of the fire to dry out.

Within a few hours, Viccars began to feel ill and by the next day he had grown considerably worse. He died – the first victim of the Eyam Plague – on September 6, 1665. A fortnight later one of widow Cooper’s sons, Edward, died of the same symptoms and the following day a near neighbour, Peter Halksworth, also succumbed. October witnessed the deaths of 23 more villagers until the approach of the harsh Peak District winter appears to have checked the disease.

St. Lawrence Church, Eyam

St. Lawrence Church, Eyam - Credit: Archant

The cause of the outbreak has traditionally been attributed to the bite of black rat fleas, infected with the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which had apparently been harboured in the box of cloth delivered to Viccars from London. The fleas carried the bacillus responsible for the bubonic plague, which killed almost a quarter of the population of London – an estimated 100,000 people –in 18 months. Coincidentally, this second plague pandemic, a period of intermittent outbreaks, was also thought to have originated in China back in the 14th century.

But the harsh winter of 1665-66 proved to be only a temporary respite, because June 1666 saw the return of the deadly virus with a vengeance, as 19 more villagers died. By July, the death toll had risen by 57 and the following month, 79 more villagers, including Catherine Mompesson, the wife of Eyam’s young vicar, had died from the virus. Catherine is buried in a table-top tomb close to the venerable Saxon cross in the churchyard of Eyam’s 13th century parish church of St Lawrence.

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By this time the young vicar, the Rev. William Mompesson, supported by his non-Conformist predecessor, the Rev Thomas Stanley, had taken the brave and radical step of proposing a quarantine on the village population, in a bid to stop the virus spreading throughout the rest of the county.

It was the decision for which Eyam, now universally known by the epithet ‘the Plague village’, will always been remembered. The establishment of a cordon sanitaire around the village boundaries was a courageous act of self-sacrifice arguably unmatched in 17th century Britain, and it has ensured that the name of the village will always stand as a beacon of altruistic heroism.

It should be added, however, that by this time those who could afford to leave – including the lord of the manor Francis Bradshaw and his family of Eyam Old Hall, and the Mompesson children, George and Elizabeth – had already fled the village.

And unlike today, back in the 17th century, most villagers like those in Eyam were to some extent self-sufficient. But in another altruistic act, certain points on the boundary, such as Mompesson’s Well north-east of the village, were designated by the major local landowner, the 4th Earl of Devonshire, so that supplies from outside could be left for the villagers. This was in return for money left in a solution of vinegar and water, in the belief that this would disinfect the coins.

In what could be seen as another early example of social distancing, Mompesson and Stanley also decided that the church would have to be locked until the epidemic had passed. Weekly services would be held instead in the open air in the nearby natural limestone amphitheatre of Cucklett Delph. And it is here where, in a normal year, the annual commemorative service for Plague victims is held on the last Sunday in August, to coincide with the village well dressings.

The quarantine also meant that there would be no more organised funerals nor burials in the churchyard, which meant that families had to bury their dead in their own gardens or in the adjacent fields.

The most poignant example of this is surely the enclosed graveyard known as the Riley Graves, about half a mile east of the village. Here there are simple memorials to a father, his three sons and three daughters of the Hancock family, all of whom died within eight days of each other in August 1666. It is presumed that they were all buried, one by one, by the distraught mother, who survived the Plague.

The tragedy had struck even harder the previous month at the neighbouring farm of the Talbots, where a whole family of seven fell victim to the deadly virus.

Joan Plant, a life-long resident of Eyam and a direct descendant of one of the Plague survivors, told BBC TV how she had gained strength in the current emergency from the fact that her ancestors had lived through something similar and survived.

‘I suppose it gives you that fortitude to just face things and get on, knowing that those people all those hundreds of years ago really didn’t have a choice,’ she said. ‘So knowing that your family have been part of all that gives you the fortitude and the wherewithal to just get on in times of crisis, and just face things day by day.’

Asked how the village was coping with the current lockdown situation, Joan replied: ‘The community has set up a plan to make sure we keep in touch with one another.’ And in shades of William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley, she added: ‘We have a pastoral team at the church which has worked incredibly well for years and years, so they have just ramped that up a lot.’

Joan added: ‘In fact, recently, I had a note pushed through the door by our neighbours just to say that if I needed anything, just to ring them and they would help. I thought it was really lovely, and I rang to say thank you very much.’

Asked how the village looked back on the Plague days of 350 years before, Joan said: ‘Every single day we have a conversation with someone about that particular time 350 or so years ago, and it’s like you’re living the same history.

‘We need to keep that hope in our mind that beyond all this tragedy, beyond all this heartache and suffering – and it’s going to be hard – then we need to look forward, to months and months ahead probably, but to a time when we can really celebrate that we actually got through this Covid-19 time.’

It is easy to make judgements and look back on these events of 350 years ago in the light of modern scientific knowledge. But the sad truth is that the horrendous death toll inflicted on the village of Eyam by the self-imposed isolation of its residents was possibly made much worse than it might have been had the virus been allowed to spread. As it was, the death rate in Eyam was comparable to that which might have been expected in a large, close-knit, urban population such as London.

Some doubts have also been cast in recent years on whether the disease which hit Eyam was in fact the same plague which had devasted London, or another, similar virus, such as anthrax or even measles. And some authorities have also pointed out that black rats and their fleas could not have survived the severe Peak District winter.

But without question, the actions of Mompesson, Stanley and the rest of the villagers were prompted by a genuine concern for the rest of the population of Derbyshire, and they acted in accordance with the best medical knowledge available to them at the time.

Eyam’s courageous lockdown all those years ago remains a shining example of selflessness for the greater good, and the village now looks forward to a lifting of the lockdown and to the welcoming again of its thousands of annual visitors.

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