For as long as I can remember I have been interested in the
history of the plague. I learned about the village of Eyam in Derbyshire while
studying at the University of York. And a few weeks ago, I dragged my kids off for an explore. We stayed at the YHA’s Ilam Hall, an enormous, rambling
place surrounded by green countryside. Perfect for a cheap base from which to
explore points of interest in Derbyshire, including a trip to Eyam.
Eyam is a beautiful village in the Peak District National
Park. It is most famous for an outbreak of bubonic plague that occurred in
1665, a year before the Great Fire of London. The present village was founded by Anglo-Saxons,
though lead had been mined in the area since Roman times. The village was once
industrial but now most of its economy is based on its status as ‘the plague
That story began when a local tailor obtained a flea-infested
bundle of cloth from London. Within a week the tailor’s assistant, George
Vicars was dead, and more began dying in the household soon after. By pure
coincidence when we stopped at Eyam we parked next to the ‘plague house’ where
the outbreak had started. This house - like the others in the village where many people died - are a kind of living monument. People living there now must be used to visitors gawking up at the windows, trying to imaging how it would have been to live alongside loved ones dying of the plague: the smells, the sounds, the sights, the fear.
The ‘plague cottage’ of Eyam where the plague first broke
out. The names of the dead in this and many nearby cottages are listed on signs outside
As the plague spread rapidly through the village,
precautions were taken at the advice of the Reverend William Mompesson, the
village rector and his Puritan Minister, Thomas Stanley. St Lawrence church was
central to the lives of villagers, just as the church was generally for people
in the seventeenth century, many of whom viewed the plague as God’s punishment for
wrong doing (a particularly challenging thought so soon after the English
Civil Wars). It was there that baptisms, weddings and funerals as well as the
daily homilies on obedience and devotion reminded one of one’s place in the
temporal and spiritual realms. Standing in the small church today, looking up
at the now-faded wall paintings that would once have been brightly painted, one
has a sense of how narrow and limited the world would have seemed if one was
trapped there. Mompesson started to hold his services
outside the church, as people were increasingly reluctant to stand shoulder to
shoulder with their neighbours.
St Lawrence church at Eyam, with its famous stained-glass windows depicting the quarantine of the village and the now faded wall paintings. Can you spot the skeleton?
It was Mompesson who encouraged the villagers to isolate
themselves from the outside world, quarantining its population rather than
allowing the disease to spread further. The sacrifice of the people is told in
a stained-glass window commemorating Eyam’s story. The number who died is disputed,
but we know that at least half the village died to the plague – upwards of 273
people (the number recorded in the Eyam church register). The danger lasted for fourteen months, and it was far longer before anything like normalcy was resumed.
A list of residents who died from the plague 1665-1666, held
in Eyam church
Survival was random. Several who remained alive had close
contact with those who died from the plague but did not contract the disease
themselves. One Elizabeth Hancock was uninfected though she buried six children
and her husband in eight days. The unofficial village gravedigger Marshall Howe
Critics of the village’s quarantine have recently pointed
out that wealthier residents were able to circumvent the ban. Indeed, Mompesson sent his own children away
to Sheffield so that that could escape the quarantine. He wanted his wife to go
with them, but she refused, deciding instead to stay with her husband and tend
to the people of Eyam. Catherine died of the plague and her grave still stands
in the churchyard. Mompesson himself was forever associated with the plague and
not universally welcomed at his next parish. He did remarry, however and
eventually became Prebendary of Southwell, Nottinghamshire.
The grave of Catherine Mompesson
Eyam is well worth a visit. Not
just for the village itself and the glorious church which is filled with
seventeenth-century detail, but also for the attractions around it. Some of
these are plague-related – such as the Coolstone or Boundary stone, where money
soaked in vinegar (believed to kill the infection) was placed in exchange for
food and medicine for the isolated villagers.
The Boundary Stone
You can visit Eyam museum, too, which was founded in 1994 and which tells the story of Eyam before the plague, as well as the various medical attempts to protect the villagers. This includes the traditional seventeenth-century plague doctor's costume that looks like something from a modern nightmare. The mask had a curved beak, shaped like that of a bird. Straps held the beak in place and the beak held dried flowers, including roses and carnations, herbs and camphor or vinegar. These contents were to keep away bad smells, which were believed to be the cause of plague in the seventeenth century (the theory of miasma being that bad smells were bad 'air' which was the cause of disease).
The garb of the plague doctor, complete with beaked nose stuffed with herbs and spices.
Much to the delight of the children, the museum also has waxwork models of people at various stages of bubonic plague, covered in sores and pustules. There is also a lot of information about rats, which spills over into the souvenirs for sale in the shop. Which is how we ended up with a pair of stuffed toy rats, Doris and Dave, who accompanied us on the rest of our tour.
Doris and Dave explore Derbyshire
The Boundary Stone, Wikipedia.
Ilam Hall: yha.org.uk
It's a lovely area, isn't it? I'm from Derbyshire myself, but from the not-so-lovely southern part. Such a sad story.
So interesting! When I went to the museum there, I was fascinated to read that some descendants of these villagers are involved in helping AIDS research because of the immunity of their ancestors to the plague xxxx
The mask had a curved beak, shaped like that of a bird. Straps held the beak in place and the beak held dried flowers, including roses and carnations, herbs and camphor or vinegar. These contents were to keep away bad smells, which were believed to be the cause of plague in the seventeenth century (the theory of miasma being that bad smells were bad 'air' which was the cause of disease).
I suspect the curved beak would have prolonged the journey for any Yersinia pestis and therefore assured that less of them arrived into the doctor.
Wrong theory, right result!
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