Monday, 6 May 2019

The Plague Village: Eyam, Derbyshire

In the summer of 1665, the last and one of the worst plague epidemics struck London. In all, the Great Plague of London killed around 100,000 people, almost one fourth of the population. Those who could, especially royalty, the aristocracy and the wealthy, fled to the countryside in hopes of escaping infection. Others continued their usual businesses, which often involved traveling around the country. 

Those who left the city risked spreading the disease, and sometimes they did. Other cities and towns, including Colchester, Norwich, Lincoln, and Peterborough, had major epidemics in 1665-66. So did a small, isolated Derbyshire village. 

Tucked away in the rural beauty of the Peak District, Eyam (pronounced "Eem") must have seemed as safe a place as one could be. 

Indeed, none of the surrounding villages or towns was visited by the dreaded disease on this occasion. 

One can imagine then Eyam's shock when George Viccars, a visitor who had come to help the local tailor, died of plague on 7 September. The source of his infection seems to have lurked in a flea-infested bale of cloth that had arrived from London the previous week. The story goes that Viccars had opened the bale and hung it in front of the fireplace to dry, thus unwittingly exposing himself to aroused and hungry fleas. (Below: The Tailor's House)

The role of fleas in spreading plague was then unknown, and would not become accepted until more than 200 years later. Today, epidemiologists have determined that plague can also be spread by human to human contact, through coughing and sneezing. This explains how the disease could sometimes spread with great rapidity.

Five more people died before the end of September, but the epidemic had barely begun. By the end of the year the death toll was 42, and it got worse. Before it ended 14 months later, the village's population had been reduced by hundreds of souls. 

The exact number of deaths is uncertain, as is the population of Eyam at the time. The parish register lists 260 plague deaths, but some deaths may have gone unrecorded. Population estimates for Eyam in 1665 range from 350 to 800, with the latter figure including people who lived in nearby hamlets and farms.

Some families lost nearly all their members. Twelve people named Frith died, thirteen named Talbot. Elizabeth Hancock lost her husband and six of her children within eight days in August 1666. She buried them herself, while people from a nearby village looked on, fearing to become infected if they helped. The gravesite is now protected by the National Trust. 

What singles out Eyam, however, is not its death toll or remoteness. It is the courageous decision the villagers made early in 1666: they agreed to quarantine themselves from the outside world. Many of them had been thinking about fleeing, but in the end only a handful of people left, among them the local aristocratic family.
The idea of remaining and isolating themselves came from the parish rector, William Mompesson. Urging people to stay and risk death to save lives elsewhere would have been difficult for anyone, but Mompesson had a special handicap. Most of the villagers didn't like or trust him. (Image: William Mompesson)

Mompesson was a newcomer, having arrived in Eyam only the year before. Worse, he had replaced a popular rector, Thomas Stanley. During the Civil War (1642-49) and the Republic or Commonwealth (1649-1660), Stanley had supported the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell. So had most of Eyam's people. 

After the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660, Parliament passed an act that required the use of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in the churches. The Puritan Stanley refused to to conform and was ejected from his position and house. When the plague broke out he was living as a recluse on the edge of the village. 

As the death toll from plague mounted, Mompesson reached out to the man he had replaced. Stanley agreed to promote the quarantine plan among the villagers. Most accepted it, however grudgingly, but the wealthiest family in the village left. 

The Earl of Devonshire, who lived at nearby Chatsworth, agreed to supply Eyam with food and other necessities during the period of isolation, as did others in the surrounding villages. 

Various markers, often large stones, were placed around the perimeter of the village to mark a boundary which no one from outside should enter and no one from Eyam should pass. The stone below is today called the Boundary Stone. The holes were drilled to hold coins. Eyam's villagers would put coins into them to pay for things people from other villages brought to them. They poured vinegar in the holes as well, believing it would disinfect the coins. (Image: Boundary Stone)

Mompesson's Well (below) as it is known today, was another place where villagers left coins to pay for food and medicines.   

Eyam's St. Lawrence's Church was closed for the duration of the plague. Religious services were held in a natural amphitheatre called Cucklett Delf. There, the residents could stand far apart from one another in hopes of stemming the infection.  

Cucklett Delf.

The precaution was reasonable, but the deaths continued to mount. August 1666 was the deadliest month, with 78 deaths, among them  Mompesson's wife Catherine, aged 27. She is buried in the village churchyard. Mompesson had the memorial below built for her.  

The disease finally receded in the autumn of 1666. It had probably burned itself out, having infected nearly everybody. The last victim died on November 1. 

The courageous decision to quarantine the village probably increased the death toll in Eyam, but it prevented the plague spreading to surrounding areas and killing far more. 

Stanley and Mompesson survived the ordeal. Stanley remained in Eyam until his death in 1670. Mompesson moved to another parish in 1669, where he was ostracised for a time by the residents, who had heard about the plague in Eyam and feared he might infect them. 

Further reading: Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders (2001). Novel about the plague in Eyam. Names have been changed and some incidents invented, but the novel provides a good sense of what the Eyam plague must have been like from the villagers' perspective.

No comments:

Post a Comment