October 2016 is reputedly 350 years since the end of the Plague in Eyam, so I reckoned it would be safe to pay a visit!
Eyam (pronounced Eem) is an attractive village in the Derbyshire Peak District which is renowned for an act of unselfishness when, in 1665 the community decided to go into voluntary quarantine when the bubonic plague struck.
The disease arrived with a bale of cloth from London which was infected with plague carrying fleas. George Viccars, the assistant to Alexander Hadfield, the tailor who had ordered the cloth, was the first victim. This bench on the village green is a reminder of the bale of cloth that triggered the plague.
The story goes that as the plague began to spread, the local vicar, William Mompesson persuaded the villagers to voluntarily impose a quarantine, cutting themselves off from the surrounding villages to minimise the spread of the disease. Food was left at specific points on the boundary of the village, the villagers leaving payment in coins that had been washed in water or vinegar.
Today the village makes the most of its history. There are plaques on the walls of houses listing the victims of the plague who lived there. One row of houses are even known as the “Plague Houses”. It is here where the first victims, including George Viccars, died.
There are similar houses throughout the village.
This St Andrew’s church where Mompesson was the minister.
Plague victims were forbidden burial as there was concern that this would spread the plague so families had to bury their own dead.
These are the “Lydgate Graves” a small graveyard where the Derby family were buried by the wife / mother who survived.
We didn’t have time, however, to visit another small cemetery “the Riley Graves” which are the outskirts of the village and where Elizabeth Hancock buried six children and her husband in eight days.
Carrying on down the track at the end of Lydgate we reached the “Boundary Stone”, one of the locations where food was left. The holes in the top were for the money that was left in pools of water or vinegar.
There is, however, one plague victim buried in the churchyard, Mompesson’s wife, who was one of the last to die of the disease.
It isn’t clear how many villagers died from the plague in Eyam. A figure of 260 deaths out of a population of around 800 is suggested on the Village website. But other sources give different numbers both for the numbers of dead and the village population.
The story of the “Plague Village” has become an enduring myth that attracts many visitors (including us!) to this small village. But just how true is it? Digging deeper many aspects of the story don’t seem quite as certain as portrayed.
The decision to isolate the village wasn’t taken immediately when the plague first appeared in August 1665. The numbers of deaths fell during the winter but rose again during the following Spring. It was only in June 1666 that the decision mas made to impose the quarantine – eight months after the epidemic began. By then the wealthy had packed up and scarpered leaving only the poorer residents who probably didn’t have the means or opportunity to leave the village. Those that fled included Mompesson’s children – he packed them off to Sheffield when the plague broke out.
The conventional story also has Mompesson as the clear “hero” of the story – the clergyman who persuaded the villagers to take the drastic course of action. But he was a relative newcomer and more recent accounts suggest that one of his predecessors, Thomas Stanley. He was rector of Eyam from 1664 to 1660, but, as a devout Puritan, he’d been sacked following the Restoration of the monarchy. Although he was meant to be exiled from the village, he was living there when the plague broke out and probably played a major role in the community and in persuading the villagers.
Although I think that there is a large element of truth in the story, it seems likely that during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:
a tradition was established, manipulated, and reshaped to fit changing literary and historical fashions. (LSE thesis by Patrick Wallis)
Still, it’s good to have myths that demonstrate that people do not always act as selfish individuals but can act together and take decisions and actions to the benefit of the wider community and that there is such a thing as Society!