Visiting the Plague Village of Eyam is a sobering experience. Kate had heard about the heroism and sacrifice of the villagers here in 1665 – 6, and last year she went to see what could still be seen and what lessons could be learnt in this pretty Derbyshire village.
Humphrey Merrill’s grave is in a field behind his house. He was the village herbalist and died in September 1666, just before the outbreak was over. Photograph © Simon Norfolk
The small village of Eyam, which means ‘place between streams’ has been around since the Bronze Age, although the presence of stone circles and barrows nearby hint at longer occupation. Relatively prosperous due to lead mining in the area, the village had a population of around 600 people. There is a 14th century church, St. Lawrence, which has Norman pillars built atop much earlier Saxon foundations, with a Saxon font inside and an 8th century Celtic cross in the churchyard.
In the late summer of 1665, Alexander Hadfield, a tailor from Eyam ordered a parcel of cloth from London and unwittingly triggered a chain of events that led to over 270 of the villagers dying from bubonic plague. The tailor’s assistant, George Viccars, unpacked the box and, seeing that the cloth was damp, hung it by the cottage fire. The cloth was flea-infested, bringing the Great Plague of London to this small Derbyshire village.
George Viccars died in September 1665 and the disease spread rapidly. Initially the villagers wanted to flee but were persuaded not to do so by their rector, the Reverend William Mompesson, and his predecessor, Thomas Stanley. These foresighted men believed that such dispersal of the village population would only spread the plague more widely. Instead they convinced the villagers to quarantine the entire village to slow the spread of the illness.
Stones were put around the village to mark the boundaries beyond which people could not venture. Church services were moved outside to Cucklett Delph where villagers could separate themselves to reduce the risk of infection. The inhabitants paid for food brought by neighbouring villages, by leaving money in bowls disinfected with vinegar. Families buried their own dead. It took 14 months for the plague to run its course, with the peak of deaths coming in August 1666 when 78 deaths occurred, including that of Catherine Mompesson, the Rector’s wife.
The museum on the edge of the village is small but comprehensive. Photograph © Google Maps
A great place to start is the tiny museum where the staff are enthusiastic and knowledgeable and will furnish you with a History Trail and plenty of information. Understandably the museum is short of artefacts, but the displays tell the moving story with as much realism and as many visual images as they can. There is a short film providing a graphic introduction – designed for the 11 year olds who regularly visit, but good for the adult visitor too.
The display cases begin with the nature, history and spread of the bubonic plague in 1665, then document the arrival and terrible effect of the plague in Eyam itself, consider the quack remedies that people turned to, and finally give the sad stories of individual families. The stated aim of the museum is to show how the human spirit is capable of overcoming the most dreadful of catastrophes. It succeeds in this aim magnificently.
Having taken in the horrifying details of this event, it is thought-provoking to walk along the village and look at the cottages, some of which existed in 1665. Outside the original Plague Cottage is a plaque to both George Viccars, Alexander Hadfield and others of that household who survived. It tells us that Mary Hadfield, Alexander’s wife, survived but lost 13 of her relatives.
The 14th century church of St. Lawrence was closed for the duration of the plague, with services held outdoors instead. Photograph © Simon Norfolk
The medieval church of St Lawrence has the records of those who died and there is now a Plague window, erected in 1985, which tells the story of the horror of those years. The principal figure in the central panel is the Reverend William Mompesson. He is shown preaching to his dwindling congregation – in small, isolated family groups. The tragic events unfold around him, beginning with the opening of the package of cloth and including the love story of a girl from Eyam and her lover from another village. They met daily, calling to each other across Cucklett Delph until she succumbed to the plague and did not arrive.
The Riley graves are a heartbreaking site, with Mrs Hancock having to bury her husband and six children by herself. They are called the Riley Graves after the farm where they lived.
At the end of the trail you find the Riley Graves where Mrs Hancock buried her husband and six children in eight days. The graves stand alone in a field, surrounded by a low stone wall. She had to physically bury them herself, dragging their bodies to the field. One cannot fully imagine her agony. There are six graves and a table tomb. The inscription reads
‘REMEMBER MAN, AS THOU GOEST BY, AS THOU ART NOW, EVEN ONCE WAS I, AS I DOE NOW, SO MUST THOU LYE. REMEMBER MAN THAT THOU MUST DIE’.
Fresh flowers are often left on these graves and it is good to know that the present villagers remember this significant event in the history of their unique village. Every last Sunday in August a procession led by the local rector walks from the church to Cucklett Delph where the outdoor services were held, and a service of commemoration takes place.
Mompesson Well sits high above the village was used as boundary point where supplies and payment could be left. Photograph © Simon Norfolk
Nearby is Mompesson Well, a natural spring used during the plague as a source of water but also a boundary point where provisions were left for the villagers. Other boundary stones also remain.
The villagers’ actions prevented the disease from moving into the surrounding areas and towns. It is an extraordinary tale of self-sacrifice and deserves full recognition in today’s world as much as the 17th century.
There are still boundary stones around the outskirts of the village. The holes are believed to be where coins were put
as payment for goods. Photograph © Smb1001
Visiting Eyam Museum
Contact [email protected] to arrange a visit
Parking: Opposite the museum at S32 5QP
Public Loos are available in the car park
The Miners Arms nearby was built in 1630 and has a pub, restaurant and accommodation.