Yesterday my friend and I went for a wander around Eyam. She was my tour guide for the day as she knows the village layout better than me, though I’m a Derbyshire lass too!
Being brought up in the Derbyshire Peak district means you can’t not have heard of Eyam’s past. It’s a well known story and many of you may well know it already. That said I’m going to tell it anyway for those who don’t or those like me who like to refresh their memories so let me set the scene….
Let me tell you a story. It’s September 1665; Oliver Cromwell has been dead for 7 years, Richard Cromwell has been driven from power and the newly restored monarchy is still in its infancy. Charles II has been in power for just 5 years.
The last of the major outbreaks of the great plague to hit England is sweeping through London and the King and his court have fled the city.
Meanwhile, in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, so tradition has it, tailor George Viccars Is tasked with unpacking a newly delivered parcel of cloth from London. On opening the parcel he discovers the fabric is damp; the cloth is therefore hung up to dry in the cottage. A few days later George Viccars is dead.
It is believed that the fabric from London was infested with plague carrying fleas. The great plague had come to Eyam.
The plague swept through the inhabitants and following a brief lull in the number of deaths during the winter of 1665 the numbers rose again at an alarming rate when spring came. This lead to a decision being made which has assured Eyam’s fame for generations.
There was a real risk that the disease would spread to neighbouring villages and cause untold devastation. The reverend William Mompesson and his puritan predecessor Thomas Stanley put forward their plan to put a stop to the plague but they needed the villagers to agree. The villagers did agree; together they consented to quarantine the village; nobody in and nobody out. They would sacrifice themselves in order to prevent the spread of the devasting disease. They knew for most of them, their decision would mean death.
It was also agreed that church burials would cease; from now on anybody who died would be buried by their family at home if possible or in nearby land to avoid anyone else coming in contact with the infected bodies.
Church services would also cease. The church was locked up and instead Reverend Mompesson preached every Sunday from Cucklet Delf, a large open space where family groups could stand well apart to avoid the spread of the disease.
Boundaries were set up to mark the quarantine area. There were places where people from neighbouring villages would leave supplies, much apparently donated by the Earl* of Devonshire**and the Eyam residents would leave money where necessary for other items in water or vinegar, believed to kill the infection. One such place is on the boundary between Eyam and it’s neighbouring village. Unsurprisingly it’s called the boundary stone!
There are stories of a woman who broke the quarantine and got as far as Tideswell where she was recognised and villagers threw things at her until she retreated back to where she’d come from.
One of the saddest stories is of a young woman, Emmot Siddall, whose lover lived in the neighbouring village. When the quarantine was enforced they would meet ( in the delf I think) each on their own side of the boundary as they couldn’t get any closer, and look at each other. One day Emmot didn’t come to their spot, or the next or the next. Her lover feared for her but could do nothing. When the village was eventually reopened in November 1666 he found that his sweetheart had died in the April.
Actual population figures before and after the plague seem to be uncertain, but it has been suggested that as few as a quarter of the village survived; that particular figure coming from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eyam
Every year a memorial service is held on the spot of the Reverend Mompesson’s outdoor services.
Remarkably some people avoided infection despite living in close quarters with infected family members. To learn more about Eyam’s role in genetic and HIV research put Eyam and delta 32 into a search engine and you’ll see all sorts of fascinating information.
* They were still Earls back then, hadn’t been upgraded to a dukedom yet.
**Why Devonshire not Derbyshire? I don’t know if it’s true but I have heard that it was a clerical error and someone misread Derbyshire and we ended up with the Earl of Devonshire in Derbyshire!