Hopefully the Covid – 19 pandemic is beginning to show signs of at least slowing down. Members of the Peakland village of Eyam like the rest of us, must be grateful for the slow easing of restrictions, while at the same time taking sensible precautions in case yet another Covid variant comes along. The folk memory of this village, more than anywhere, must have been jogged in wondering whether this was going to be a repeat of the Great Plague that ravaged the country in 1665.
In 1665 it was an outbreak of Bubonic Plague, imported into Eyam from London within a parcel of cloth that brought with it an unwelcome guest. Unlike now, there were no wonder drugs available and it had to be dealt with by a successful form of Social Distancing led by a courageous vicar, the Rev. William Mompesson.
In the early autumn of 1665, life in Eyam was pleasantly relaxed. The rigours of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth were fast disappearing with the restoration of King Charles II to the throne, and with a particularly good harvest safely gathered in, village folk were looking forwards to an easier time, enjoying themselves on the run-up to the new year. No doubt news of a plague that was currently ravaging London, was brought, word of mouth by travellers, but there was no need to be too bothered, wasn’t London far away to the south of Derbyshire, needing a journey lasting at least three days.
Bubonic Plague had been around since at least Roman times. Bacillus yarsinia pestris had entered the country at Bristol from Europe where it was running out of control. Carried by fleas, it soon found its way to densely overcrowded London where rats passed the infected fleas to human beings. Within a matter of a month around 7000 deaths were occurring each week. We have to thank the diarist Samuel Pepys and other writers for their descriptions of masses of victims needing to be buried in plague pits rather than in conventional churchyard graves. It was from this horrific situation that the disease found its way to the quiet Peakland village of Eyam, coming as part of an innocent parcel of cloth.
George Viccars an itinerant tailor was lodging with Alexander Hadfield in the centre of a row of terraced cottages that still stand, close to the church gate. It was he who waited for the parcel, but when it arrived it was found to be slightly damp and so he spread its contents in front of the kitchen stove in order to dry. Unfortunately the material was full of flea eggs that began to hatch in the warm atmosphere. They then spread rapidly around the cottage and also began to move next door to the Hadfields on the handy backs of wandering rats, inevitably beginning to spread plague around the village.
Symptoms of the plague started with swellings which spread rapidly around the victim’s neck, immediately followed by a high fever, soon ending in death. Within three days George Viccars and the Hadfields were the first to die, followed rapidly by their next door neighbours. All too soon the disease was rampaging around Eyam and surrounding farms. People began to panic as the plague spread through the village and those who could escape, including Squire Bradshaw, moved away. Of the 350 who remained, 260 were to die before the disease had run its course. With the squire gone the only person the villagers could turn to was the vicar, William Mompesson who, with the help of his ‘Puritan’ predecessor Thomas Stanley who had been sacked from his living on the accession of King Charles II. Sinking their ideological differences the two men set about finding a way to save as many members of their flock as possible, but at the same time preventing the plague from spreading to other parts of the district. Mompesson wanted to send his family away to stay with relatives near Barnburgh in west Yorkshire, but while his wife Katherine agreed to send the children she insisted on staying at her husband’s side, an action that effectively became her death warrant.
As the plague began to inexorably spread around the village, people turned to strange remedies, such as drinking molten pig fat, simply because a woman who eventually survived had drunk it towards the end of her illness. Other weird and wonderful ‘cures’ ranged from breathing into the rear of a chicken in order to ‘draw’ the plague, or letting a frog sit on a victim’s stomach. None of these could possibly work, but the plan devised by Mompesson prevented the plague from spreading, simply sitting-out the disease until it had run its deadly course. In this way survivors built up a form of group immunity.
Like the early days of the Covid pandemic, villagers were instructed not to travel, or congregate anywhere indoors, adopting an early form of Social Distancing. No funerals were allowed in the churchyard, which led to the horrific sight of survivors burying their dead relatives in back gardens or nearby fields. Elizabeth Hancock from Riley Farm on the outskirts of Eyam buried her husband and six of their children within the space of eight days. Somehow the poor distraught woman became immune and was able to move to Sheffield and stay with her eldest son who happened to be away when the plague struck. The family graves – Riley Graves as they are known, lie inside a circular wall in a field above the old lane leading from Eyam to Stoke Wood to the east of Eyam, while others are dotted around the village. Katherine Mompesson who died of the plague while courageously helping her husband, is the only person to be buried in the churchyard
Mompesson’s courageous plan to quarantine Eyam was simple, but effective. Backed by the Earl of Devonshire (the dukedom was to follow in later years), who agreed to supply the village with food and fuel left at various points around the village boundary. Two of these are easily recognised; Mompesson’s Well is the best known, it can be found below Edge Road a little way beyond the turning on to the Bretton road. Another feature is a large boulder lined with neat holes close to the parish boundary beside the path from Eyam to Stoney Middleton; the holes when filled with vinegar as a simple disinfectant held money to pay for goods left beside the rock. The system was worked by Mompesson calling his order to suppliers waiting nearby.
When the plague seemed to have run its course, vicar Mompesson made his parishioners burn all their clothes and bedding, thus killing off any remaining virus carrying vermin – yet another example of his far-sighted thinking. Probably Mompesson’s lasting memorial is the annual service held in Cucklet Dell below the village. Here with his surviving parishioners, he was able to preach from a natural pulpit in the limestone crag. The Earl of Devonshire allowed Thomas Stanley to stay in the village as a reward for the help and support he gave to the Rev Mompesson throughout the ordeal. Little is known of his later activities, but if you go into the church and look up to the medieval paintings on the north wall of the nave, you will be looking at paintings Stanley covered in whitewash during his time in charge of the church as a non-conformist Puritan minister in the days following England’s time as a Parliamentarian Republic.
The moving saga of the ‘Plague Village’ can be found in Eyam Museum opposite the lower car park beyond the church and plague cottages. Winner of the 1998/9 Museum of the Year Shoestring Award, it is open from April to the end of October, Tuesday to Sunday – 10:00a.m.to 4:30pm. Closed Mondays except Bank Holidays.