The Plague of Eyam
The Plague of 1665
Epidemics of the bubonic plague started in Europe in 1347, and intermittently continued until 1750. The outbreak that hit England in 1665 became known as The Great Plague. It is estimated that in London, 100,000 people died of the plague within 18 months.
The population of London had been growing and many people in the city lived in poverty. People disposed of rubbish, including human waste, by throwing it into the streets. This caused the streets to be filthy, and created an ideal breeding place for rats. The plague was spread by infected fleas on rats, and the first victims were those from the poorer areas who were unable to avoid contact with rats. It is thought that the Great Fire of London in 1666 is what finally put a stop to the epidemic in the city, although historians do not all agree on this.
Others areas of England were also affected by The Great Plague, including the village of Eyam.
Spread of the Plague to Eyam
A parcel of cloth from London was delivered to the village tailor in the summer of 1665. It is thought that this parcel contained fleas that caused the spread of the plague to Eyam.
The first victim was George Viccars, the tailor's assistant who opened the parcel. His stepsons, immediate neighbours and the tailor also died shortly afterwards. The disease then spread quickly though the village. Whole households were lost, although some inhabitants did not become sick despite nursing others. Some became ill, but unexpectedly recovered.
It is now thought that some of those who did not catch the plague had a chromosome that protected them from the disease. Descendants of those who survived the plague in the village have been found to have the same chromosome.
Reverend William Mompesson and the Quarantine
Some of the villagers wanted to flee to nearby Sheffield to escape the plague. However, Mompesson persuaded them to agree to a quarantine to prevent the disease from spreading beyond the village.
Surrounding villages left food and supplies for the Eyam residents at the village boundary, and the villagers left coins in a trough filled with vinegar in order to steralise them. Using this method, those leaving the supplies did not have to come into contact with the villagers.
Mompesson also stipulated that religious services should be held outside at Cucklett Delf, rather than inside the church, in the hope that this would reduce the risk of the disease spreading.
Despite the dangers of staying in the village, records suggest that there were very few attempts to break the quarantine. It is thought that the actions of the villagers may have saved thousands of lives in the north of England.
Duration of the Plague
The Plague in Eyam lasted around 14 months. During winter, the rat population diminished leading to a reduction in the number of infections, but in the spring the rats re-emerged and the disease once again started to spread.
During the outbreak, 260 villagers died. Many resources cite the total population of Eyam at the time of the plague as 350, but some suggest it was nearer to 800. Either way, the impact on the village must have been devastating.
One of the victims was Catherine Mompesson, wife of Rev William Mompesson, who died on 25 August 1666. Her grave can be seen in the churchyard.
Eyam is an attractive village which is very popular with visitors to the area, but the plague has not been forgotten.
There are several plaques displayed around the village commemorating the victims of the plague, and the museum has an exhibition that tells the story. Every year a remembrance service is held at Cucklett Delf, normally on the last Sunday in August, which is also known as Plague Sunday. The same week usually sees Eyam dress their wells, which is a traditional Derbyshire custom.
Other places of interest in the village include Eyam Hall and Craft Centre and a sculpture garden. There are also two tea rooms and a pub. The village is a good location for starting a walk and exploring some of the Peak District Countryside.
Eyam is a pretty and charming village with much to attract visitors, but it is probably still best known for the courage and sacrifice made by the villagers during the plague outbreak.