The Plague Village Eyam | Jo Tempest

The Plague Village Eyam

The village of Eyam, Derbyshire in England has an interesting history. The bubonic plague devastated mainly London in 1663, but unfortunately it made its way to Eyam in August of the same year.

George Vicars was the local tailor in the village and had ordered some material from London. When it arrived, it was damp so he hung it near a fire to dry out, but this allowed the infested rat fleas to escape.

George was the first to die from the plague on the 7th September, just a few days after receiving his parcel. Around another fifty residents of the village died over the next few weeks.

The local rector, William Mompesson, was really concerned that if members of his parish left the village, they would spread the plague around the neighbouring towns. He spoke to all the families who were left and told them that they must isolate themselves as a village with no one leaving and no one coming in.

They must bury any members of their families that die themselves, and near to their homes, not in the churchyard. Church services would not be held in the church but outside in the Hollow of Cucklett Deff, to minimize contagion. The villagers were very brave and agreed to his plans.

Villages close by brought food and supplies to Eyam but left them at the Boundary Stones. They received their payments with money that was either left in vinegar holes or that had been purified in well water.

Probably, the other villages were happy to leave supplies so that their villages would not be visited by Eyam residents. Also, the Earl of Devonshire, who lived at nearby Chatsworth House, did what he could for the villagers of Eyam by giving free food and medical supplies.

It was very scary because with the lock down of Eyam, many people were still dying. Poor Elizabeth Hancock of Riley House Farm lost all six of her children as well as her husband in just eight days. She had to bury them all herself on her farm, knowing that she had probably brought the plague to her home after helping to bury a neighbour.

Fourteen months after the plague had arrived in Eyam, it had run its course. The deaths stopped but had claimed the lives of 273 villagers, including Catherine, the wife of the rector, William Mompesson. She was allowed to be buried in the churchyard, especially as she had spent many months along with her husband, visiting and tending all the sick families.

It was never known why some people would succumb to the plague while others were never affected at all, like William, the rector, and Elizabeth Hancock who lost her whole family. Occasionally, a person would contract the plague and actually survive. One of these was Marshall Howe, the unofficial grave digger, and he was exposed so many times.

This is an extraordinary story of the bravery of the villagers of Eyam who were definitely instrumental in stopping the spread of the bubonic plague across England. It is still remembered today in the village, on Plague Sunday (the last Sunday in August).

A memorial service is held in the Hollow of Cucklett Deff where the villagers collected over those terrible 14 months, watching their numbers decrease as each week went by.

If you ever find yourself in the village of Eyam, then visit the small local museum and you may even meet some of the descendants of the families who lived through being cut off from the rest of the world for a long time.

 

Jo Tempest

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