Plague in England - Eyam, Derbyshire, a story of courage and endurance.
Welcome to Eyam – it’s infectious
The year is 1665. Imagine you’re living a in an English village. Here in the Derbyshire Peak District you’re surrounded by dramatic moorland, lush valleys, and stunning limestone gorges.
The village is Eyam, life is peaceful and traditional. If you’re female, you have married at a young age. You keep busy, cleaning, cooking washing and caring for the children. Large families are the norm.
The men work, perhaps in lead mines or making and repairing shoes or maybe weaving. And then there’s the local tailor, George Viccars.
George has ordered a bolt of cloth from London. It arrives slightly damp and he hangs it in front of the fire to dry. No one could have predicted how this normal everyday action would change life from tranquility to unprecedented horror.
The Plague Village
The heated cloth released infected fleas. In a few days, George Viccars died of a raging fever. The bubonic plague had arrived.
So what would you do? Flee the village? I’m not ashamed to say that would be my inclination. I’m out of here would be my first thought. After all, the city of Sheffield is nearby. It was not to be.
William Mompesson, the church rector, had other ideas. A respected and influential person he devised a plan for all the villagers to stay. This, he predicted, would ensure the disease did not spread.
Amazingly, the community agreed. A quarantine was declared – no one would leave Eyam - no one would enter. This was such a heroic, courageous, decision - although I wonder if they realized then the possible consequences of their decision.
It was to be an enormous sacrifice. Before the plague struck, there were 350 inhabitants in Eyam. Between September 1665 and October 1666, 259 villagers from 76 families, died.
Exploring Eyam today
Today, aware it is one of England’s best preserved villages; Eyam (pronounced Eem) uses a tongue-in-cheek approach to visitors. ‘Welcome to Eyam,’ the signs read, ‘it’s infectious.’
Wandering through the narrow streets you still perceive the heartbreak of what occurred all those years ago.
The plague cottages are occupied and it’s not usual to see the owners out and about tending the gardens. Each cottage has a plaque erected in memoriam of the former inhabitants.
The village is best explored on foot. High above the village stand the Boundary Stones - the place elected to leave food and medical supplies for the quarantined villagers.
Close by is Mompesson’s well. Here payment for the food was left. To avoid infection, coins were either immersed in well water or left in vinegar soaked holes.
In the centre of the village is the church of St Lawrence. As a testament to the tragedy and the bravery of the people there’s an exhibition detailing the plague.
Rector Mompesson’s own chair is there. He survived but his wife Catherine who helped tend the sick didn’t. Her tomb is in the cemetery.
The church has two Norman columns and there is speculation it may be built on Saxon foundations. In the churchyard is a Saxon cross carved with a mixture of pagan and Christian symbols.
Most of the victims are not buried in the churchyard. With the vain hope of preventing the spread of disease, the deceased were buried quickly, usually by family members, in surrounding fields.
A poignant reminder - to the east of the village stand the Riley graves - Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six children. All seven were struck down and died between the 3rd and 10th of August 1666.
During the quarantine the church was closed and services held outside at Cucklett Delf. This is where young Eyam girl, Emmot Siddall, waved across the fields each evening to her sweetheart - Rowland Torre from a neighbouring village.
Sadly, the day arrived when Emmot didn’t show. From her family of ten only 3 year old Joseph Siddall survived.
A grim reminder of the past a rat weathervane graces the outside of the Museum. Inside, it traces the tragic stories of individual families. It also deals with the subsequent growth of local industry and an insight into local geology.
Eyam Hall is a 17th century manor house, for over 300 years the home of the original builders, the Wright Family. It is open to the public and also has a small set of craft workshops attached.
The local hotel – The Miners Arms, built in 1630, is steeped in history. Past times are well documented in every nook and cranny.
The pub food is excellent and fresh local ingredients are sourced from local suppliers. As you’d expect - it has resident ghosts. It claims to be the most haunted pub in Derbyshire.
Each year, towards the end of August, Eyam holds an annual carnival and what is termed a Wakes week celebration. It begins with the blessing of the wells followed by activities, a festival, a parade, and a sheep roast.
The carnival concludes with a thanksgiving service at Cucklett Delf on the last Sunday in August – now known as Plague Sunday. A wreath of roses is laid on Catherine Mompesson’s tomb.
350 years after the event, this is a tribute to the selflessness of the Eyam people. Villagers, who proved that the human spirit endures the most devastating of catastrophes.
Author Geraldine Brooks historical novel – Year of Wonders is based on the plague and the people of Eyam.
Northern England was not badly affected by the plague. There’s little doubt the brave people of Eyam saved cities from the worst scenario. After all, 75,000 to 100,000 people had died in London.
No one outside of Eyam contracted the plague.
The people of Eyam were very courageous and stayed in the village despite the plague raging and destroying. Had they not stayed, undoubtedly the plague would have spread throughout Derbyshire and beyond. So what would you have done?
What would you do?
Would you have stayed in the village once the plague had been identyified?
Eyam is approximately four hours northwest of London by road. One hour from Manchester airport.
Nearby attractions include – Chatsworth Hall, Blue John caves, Castleton, Little Moreton Hall.