The Eyam Plague: A Hero’s Tale

Covid-19  is currently wreaking havoc throughout the world. People are emptying stores to fill their cupboards with supplies.  What lessons can we learn from those who dealt with these sorts of epidemics in the past? One village can teach us all a lesson in self sacrifice and community responsibility.

In the summer of 1665 the bubonic plague was sweeping through London. This was the same virus that had decimated Europe 300 years earlier and now it was back. Victims would start off with flu like symptoms of fever and vomiting, their lymph nodes would swell, creating ‘buboes’, and their skin decayed. After days of agony, they would succumb to the contagion.

In September of that year, one hundred and sixty miles north of London in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, Alexander Hadfield, the village tailor, received an order of cloth from London.  His assistant, a travelling tailor by the name of George Viccars, unwrapped the cloth and hung it over the fire to dry. Unbeknownst to him, burrowing in the weave were fleas infected with the plague.  George Viccars soon fell ill and by the end of the week became the first victim of the Eyam outbreak. From the tailor’s house, the virus spread quickly throughout the community and by the end of the year 42 people had died.

A Selfless Plan 

During the cold winter months, the death rate slowed but by June of 1666 it had once again risen. Frightened residents prepared to flee the area, most heading to the city of Sheffield. The rector, William Mompesson, recognised the risk to surrounding communities if potentially infected people moved away. He believed that the village needed to take the radical decision to be quarantined. The people of Eyam would need to sacrifice themselves to keep the virus from spreading any further.

Mompesson had replaced the former vicar, Thomas Stanley, a few years before and he wasn’t well liked by his new parishioners. He knew he’d need Stanley on his side in order to convince the villagers. After approaching his predecessor, the two agreed on a plan.

They called an outdoor meeting of all healthy residents and put forward their plan. Many people expressed concerns, after all a quarantine would mean certain death for many of them. In the end, they reluctantly agreed.

Mompesson promised his parishioners that they would not starve or lack necessities. The Earl of Devonshire, who lived in nearby Chatsworth House, and the neighbouring villagers at Stoney Middleton agreed to provide whatever the townspeople needed.  They drilled small holes into the village’s boundary stones then filled them with vinegar, a disinfectant. Goods would be left on the stones and coins could be dropped into the holes as payment. Residents were also asked to dispose of their own dead.

A Lover’s Tale

Emmett Sydall was a young woman who lived with her family in Eyam.  She was betrothed to Rowland Torre of Stoney Middleton.  When the outbreak made it impossible for the two to visit each other openly they would secretly meet at a secluded spot between their two villages.  To protect Rowland from any infection, they took care to stand at a reasonable distance.

In April of 1666, Emmett stopped meeting Rowland. He had to wait until the outbreak ended and the quarantine was lifted to find out that his fiancé had died.

And A Mother’s Agony

Elizabeth Hancock lived with her husband John and their six children on the outskirts of the village at Riley’s Farm. The plague struck their house in August of 1666.  Within eight days her entire family were dead.  Following the rules of quarantine, Elizabeth had to dig plots in a nearby field and bury each of her loved ones herself.  Some of them were too big for her to carry so she was forced to drag them along the ground to their final resting place.  People from Stoney Middleton were said to have watched her from a distance but due to the quarantine were unable to help.

The End Finally Comes

In late October 1666, Abraham Morten died, he was the last of the plague victims. After 14 months, Eyam’s hellish ordeal was finally over. Out of a population of around 700, it is believed that nearly 260 people had died, including Mompesson’s beloved wife Catherine. The lives that they saved by stopping the spread is immeasurable.

Modern Implications 

350 years later the descendants of the survivors of the Eyam outbreak are providing genetic information about their ancestors. In December 2000, a study done on the DNA of 100 descendants still living in Eyam showed a higher than normal proportion of those villagers carried the Delta 32 genetic mutation.  This mutation gives them immunity to the Bubonic Plague. Also, if  inherited by both parents, Delta 32 is known to give immunity to HIV/AIDS.

Eyam village is now a popular tourist destination with museums, shops and tearooms. In front of some of the houses are plaques telling the story of the plague victims who once lived there. The Riley Graves, the final resting place of Mrs Hancock’s husband and six children, has been preserved by The National Trust and visitors are welcome.

Eyam is now known as a beautiful little village in the picturesque Peak District National Park but its story of sacrifice in the face of certain death has attracted people from all over the world. Considering the incredible heroism of those residents of Eyam, we can’t help but ask ourselves if we could have made the same decision.

If you’d like to take a stroll through the village of Eyam from the comfort of your computer, follow these Google Street View Links:

Plague Houses and Church

The Riley Graves

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