Written by Olivier Guiberteau
The peaceful village of Eyam, tucked into the Peak District towards the north of England and just 56 km (35 miles) southeast of Manchester, is very much your quintessential English village – where aged cottages line the quiet streets with more than a whisper of a long-bygone era.
It is one of those modest, out-of-the-way places, with a population of just under 1,000, where you would be forgiven for assuming that nothing of importance ever happens – and you would be entirely wrong.
When the Great Plague of London erupted in 1665, some 250 km (160 miles) south of Eyam, for those living far from distant cities and still several centuries away from rolling news coverage, it must have seemed like a different world.
London was ravaged by the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in the UK, with at least 100,000 people dying as a result – a quarter of the city’s population. But the country was not yet the vast interconnected web that we see today and much of Britain was spared the horror.
However, not everywhere was so lucky, and there were sporadic outbreaks in small villages and towns close to London and even further afield. In 1665, a bundle of cloth arrived in Eyam from London, destined for the local tailor, Alexander Hadfield. Unbeknown to everybody, the plague had arrived in the small village. What came next has long gone down in the annals of heroism, with Eyam’s population choosing to implement a voluntary quarantine to prevent the disease from spreading to nearby communities.
Over 14 months, the plague devastated Eyam, reducing its already tiny population by at least. The story of Eyam, often simply referred to as ‘Plague Village’, remains an astonishing tale of self-sacrifice in the face of one of the worst diseases we’ve ever experienced.
In many ways, Eyam hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Its church stands much as it did 350 years ago and many older buildings have been preserved in that quaint way that often tends to happen in English villages.
Whether it was the Romans or the Anglo-Saxons who first settled here is open to debate, but both left a presence in the local area. Lead mining was once a lucrative business in this northern region of England and continued up to the 19th Century when better and cheaper alternatives were found.
In 1665 the village was about as anonymous as it gets, just another English village in the north of the country, close to the quickly growing city of Manchester, but still a world away from the frantic hustle and bustle going on in London to the south.
Yet while this small village may have been relatively peaceful and tranquil, there were some political and religious undercurrents that we should go through before carrying on with the story.
Just over a year before the outbreak, Reverend Thomas Stanley had been dismissed from his official post for refusing to take the Oath of Conformity and use the Common Book of Prayer.
This was a series of reforms that had come into effect with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Stanley had firmly objected to the more authoritarian undertones of the Oath of Conformity and was replaced as Reverend William Mompesson, who had been the post just a year, and now lived in the rectory with his wife Katherine and their two small children. Stanley on the other hand had been banished to a house on the outskirts of the village but remained a deeply popular figure among his ex-parishioners.
The same could not be said for the unfortunate Mompesson who seems to have been landed a rather poisoned chalice. Villagers remained suspicious of him and it was clear where their allegiances still lay.
The Black Death
When the plague burst free in London in 1664, it was by no means the first time this hellish spectre had visited the country. Recent evidence suggests that the plague may have killed in Britain as early as 544 AD, though it’s not entirely clear just how widespread this outbreak was. However, there is no such confusion about what happened just over 800 years later.
In June 1348, a young sailor stepped ashore at Weymouth on England’s south coast after making the short journey from Gascony on France’s Atlantic seaboard. He would shortly become the first known plague victim in Britain during a pandemic that not only ravaged the British Isles but much of Europe as well as Nothern Africa and the Middle East.
The numbers killed during the Black Death, or ‘The Great Mortality’ as it was then known, were astonishingly high at a time when medical understanding and pathology were still essentially in their infancy. Between 75 and 200 million died as a result of the Black Death between 1346 and 1353, with approximately 40-60% of the British population dying – perhaps around 3 to 4 million people.
The plague returned to Britain with a vengeance in 1361 and 1362, killing another 20% of the population, before again petering out. But the events of the second half of the 14th Century were simply the start. What is now labelled as the ‘second plague pandemic’ was a multi-century period that stretched from the 14th Century up to the early 19th Century.
There were further large-scale outbreaks in Britain in 1563, 1593, and 1625, but the plague never really left and it was uncommon for any year to go past without at least some deaths attributed to it. London saw 30,000 plague deaths in 1603, 35,000 in 1625, and 10,000 in 1636 – but something much bigger was again lurking on the horizon.
What has come to be known as the Great Plague of London was a slow burner at first. It’s thought that this variation may have been carried over from the Netherlands, where Amsterdam had seen roughly 50,000 die from the plague that year.
The disease began creeping through the dock areas in London throughout the final months of 1664, but deaths were frequently attributed to something else. By April 1665, the number of deaths had increased and the city council acted to introduce household quarantine as a way of stemming the spread.
By May and June, with plague deaths mounting, panic set in. The rich were often able to flee the city to private houses in the country, while the poor either had to survive the best they could or attempt to leave the city, something that became increasingly difficult when regulations were introduced that required anybody leaving London to be in possession of a clean health certificate.
As the summer progressed, deaths climbed steadily, moving from 2,000 per week in July, to over 7,000 per week in September. The city was left a painful shell of its former self with abandoned businesses and deserted streets now a regular sight. Believing that animals might be the cause, the city ordered the culling of dogs and cats, while another theory that it was down to bad air led to giant bonfires appearing that were required to be kept going day and night.
While London received the worst of the outbreak, this was almost certainly down to its size and population density. Outside the capital, deaths were certainly lower, but small pockets still received a hellish battering. Derby and Norwich were both hit hard, while there were also cases of tiny villages near major towns that had been effectively emptied thanks to the plague.
The Plague arrives in Eyam
The story goes that the plague arrived in the peaceful village of Eyam within a bundle of cloth that had been sent from London to Alexander Hadfield, the local tailor. When his assistant, a man by the name of George Viccars, who also lived in the family home along with Hadfield, his wife, and their two children, noticed that the cloth was damp he made the fateful, and yet entirely practical decision to hang it up to dry.
Within a matter of days, Viccars had become seriously ill and died on 7th September 1665 – becoming the first plague victim in Eyam. Two weeks later, 4-year-old Edward died and was followed by his brother Jonathan a further two weeks later. Alexand Hadfield, whose unfortunate purchase from London had brought the plague to Eyam died the following August in 1666 – leaving his wife, Mary, the only survivor. Today a sign recalling the deaths stands beside the cottage where it all began, in block capitals at the top it simply reads, ‘Plague Cottage’.
Between September and December 1664, 42 villagers died and as 1665 began, then slowly progressed, panic gradually increased and many openly considered fleeing the small village.
By the spring, it was clear that Eyam had reached a tipping point, and Reverend Mompesson began to contemplate a plan that would almost certainly kill many in Eyam, but just might save nearby towns and villages.
Now, at this point, it’s important to remember that Reverend Mompesson was relatively new in the job in Eyam and remained unpopular, though probably more because his parishioners remained loyal to his ousted predecessor who many believe had been unfairly dismissed, rather than a genuine dislike for Mompesson himself.
Mompesson couldn’t have been in a worse position, and if he had any hope of convincing those on Eyam of his plan, he needed support – and there was only one man who could help. Not much has been recorded about the relationship between Mompesson and Stanley, his predecessor. It seems likely that Standley must have felt a degree of resentment in how he had been treated by the church, but whether this extended to his successor we can’t be sure.
The two men agreed to meet and together they concocted a plan that would place Eyam into self-imposed quarantine, with nobody allowed in or out. Villages nearby had agreed to leave food on the outskirts of Eyam and it was decided that money would be left in holes containing vinegar, a substance believed to ward off the plague. Now, all the two Reverends, both past and present, needed, was the agreement of those living within the proposed Cordon Sanitaire.
A meeting of all Eyam inhabitants was called and Mompesson, with Stanley standing beside him, set out the plan for how the village would combat the outbreak. Firstly, boundary stones would be laid around Eyam, with none of the inhabitants allowed to pass through, while signs would also be erected warning outsiders not to enter the quarantine zone. Secondly, all food and materials needed from outside would be left at the boundary, as would the money required. Thirdly, the church would be locked and all services would be held outside, and finally, and perhaps most gruesomely of all, the dead would have to be buried by their families as close as possible to where they died, instead of the church graveyard.
We can only begin to imagine what must have been going through the minds of the Eyam villagers as this plan was laid out before them. The Reverends were requesting the highest of sacrifices on their part, in the hope they might be able to save neighbouring villages. It’s not clear how unanimous the decision was, but the majority agreed to the plan, and Eyam soon found itself in self-imposed lockdown.
Death & Sacrifice
If there was a great nobility to the decision to quarantine the village, what came next was harrowing as the overwhelming majority remained inside the cordon as the summer temperatures climbed – along with deaths.
There were odd reports of people leaving the village, either fleeing or simply going to a market in a bigger town, but the compliance rate was said to be high. That summer was exceptionally warm, and at its peak, 4 or 5 villagers were dying each day. Any resemblance of normality soon collapsed and Eyam began to crumble. Crops were left abandoned in the fields with precious few people left to work them, while gardens, roads, and even houses were left to decay.
When the village’s only stonemason succumbed to the disease, those who had lost loved ones were forced to engrave markers themselves, some of which still stand in Eyam to this day. It wasn’t uncommon for entire families to be decimated and the story of Elizabeth Hancock is about as difficult a tale as you’re ever likely to hear.
Over the course of just 8 days, Hancock lost her five children and her husband. After each death, she would haul the body to a small plot on the outskirts of the villages and bury it herself. This plot still exists today, surrounded by a low stone wall, with sweeping views of the countryside.
A small plaque contains the names of those lost, and the tragic timeline that accompanied their deaths, it reads:
ELIZABETH HANCOCK, AUG 3rd 1666
JOHN HANCOCK, AUG 3rd 1666
ONER HANCOCK, AUG 7th 1666
WILLIAM HANCOCK, AUG 7th 1666
ALICE HANCOCK, AUG 9th 1666
ANN HANCOCK, AUG 10th 1666
The case of Elizabeth Hancock may have been one of the most difficult because of the sheer number of deaths in such a small amount of time, but it wasn’t isolated. Across Eyam, families were destroyed and it became all too common to hear the slow dragging of a corpse on its way to a lonely burial.
The summer proved to be the low point and as autumn slowly progressed, there were glimmers that the outbreak was coming to an end. By November, deaths in Eyam had ceased, and the decision was made to remove the quarantine.
The plague had ravaged Eyam for 14 months, with roughly nine months in its self-imposed lockdown. As the air began to clear, the true horror of what had happened became apparent. Now, the number of deaths in Eyam has been debated. Originally the figure was put at 260 out of 350 inhabitants, but more modern research appears to suggest higher numbers for both – perhaps 400 survivors out of a population of around 800. Whether it’s the former or the latter, what happened in Eyam meant that the tiny Derbyshire village saw higher rates of death than even London.
But quite remarkably, the quarantine not only held but actually worked. Nearby towns and villages remained plague free, which would have almost certainly been down to the actions of those living in Eyam.
The effect on the small village was shattering and it would take decades and perhaps even the best part of a century to fully recover. Reverend Mompesson’s wife Catherine is buried in the local cemetery, with flowers often left at her grave even to this day, in memory of her sacrifice to remain with her husband in Eyam, even as her two children left.
The events in Eyam, now just over 350 years ago, have been retold countless times in the last couple of years as we battle our own pandemic and perhaps search for parallels between our own experience and that of the past. While quarantines had been used long before Eyam, there were few, if any examples of self-imposed quarantines. The successful implementation in Eyam showed that it could work and with the cooperation of the community, diseases could be contained within a certain area.
The quick disposal of bodies and the vinegar used to handle the coins were two other factors that have continued to some degree or another. Sterilization has now become common practice, while speedy burials have been pivotal in bringing an end to recent Ebola outbreaks.
The story of Eyam and its valiant last stand has an almost mythical poeticness to it. Some argue that events have been embellished to create a noble story of self-sacrifice that we should all follow, and like any history that is several centuries old, there’s no way to know for certain, but few would claim the story to be untrue. This kind of tale is ripe for seasoning, as the most dramatic and heroic normally are, yet it remains an iconic story and one that is now more pertinent than ever.
In the words of Victorian local Historian William Wood,
“Let all who tread the green fields of Eyam remember, with feelings of awe and veneration, that beneath their feet repose the ashes of those moral heroes, who with a sublime, heroic and unparalleled resolution gave up their lives, yea doomed themselves to pestilential death to save the surrounding country.”