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The martyrs of Eyam during the Plague Year of 1665

Posted in Bravery, British Countryside, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, London on Wednesday, 7 December 2011

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This edited article about the Great Plague of London originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 870 published on 16 September 1978.

Eyam, picture, image, illustration

Plague victims were taken to the churchyard in Eyam, where the villagers had quarantined themselves to prevent the spread of the disease

The village of Eyam, pronounced “Eem”, is remote, even today. Visitors to the Derbyshire Dale country who drive between the typical local drystone walls from Little Hucklow to Great Hucklow, and then on to Grindlow and Foolow, will eventually come to Eyam. There they will find a small village green, which still boasts a pair of rather time-worn stocks, a relic of the days when anyone who misbehaved himself could expect to be imprisoned in them until he had seen the error of his ways.

Further on there is one of the few sheep-roasting spits left in England, a good deal smaller than the traditional apparatus for ox-roasting, but in these days of expensive meat, a good deal more practical. The local building is of stone, typical of the countryside, and the village is well worth a tourist’s snapshot for its appearance alone.

However, this is not just another village in the Peak District, this is the “Plague Village”, remembered for 300 years for the steadfast bravery of its people. No special monument commemorates the fact, because the village of Eyam is its own memorial.

In 1665, London was in the grip of bubonic plague, the Great Plague that was to claim more than 65,000 victims in the city before it was done. Plague was not new to London, for there had been odd outbreaks for hundreds of years, as indeed there had been in most parts of Europe. People accepted it as something that came from the East, spread mysteriously, and just as mysteriously went away again.

How it was passed from one person to another they had no idea; certainly nobody knew of a cure. When there was an occasional outbreak one simply hoped for the best, and if the disease looked as though it might be taking hold, anyone who could afford to, fled.

There were a few cases of plague in Westminster during the autumn of 1664, but no more than usual. But in the spring the following year, it crept down Holborn and within six months had travelled from one side of the city to the other. Forty-three people died of plague in May, 1665; 590 in June; 6,137 in July and 17,036 in August.

The summer was an unusually hot one, and the disease bred rapidly in the filthy, tight-packed streets. Even today we have no means of knowing what caused this particular outbreak, but it seems likely that it was introduced by some Dutch prisoners of war, and then spread by the fleas of the black rat. But once plague broke out in a city, all it needed to spread like a forest fire was heat and dirt, and in 1665 London had an abundance of both.

Two thirds of London’s 400,000 inhabitants left the doomed city as quickly as possible. The King and his court went to Oxford, the less well-connected to anywhere that could provide them with a temporary home. In many cases the refugees took the dreaded illness with them, while London literally took on the appearance of a city of the dead. Those who stayed behind were mainly the poor, who had nowhere else to go, and a small number of officials who considered it their duty to stay.

Among the latter was the diarist, Samuel Pepys, who could easily have found an excuse to move with the court, but as a civilian naval official, he felt that to stay at his post was the equivalent of showing courage in battle. He was also driven by an overpowering curiosity that was stonger than fear, and to which we owe his wonderful on-the-spot descriptions of a London where grass grew in the streets and there were not enough fit people left to bury the dead.

Eyam, in far away Derbyshire, was sufficiently remote not to be troubled with refugees, but even so, it was still within reach of the plague. In the late summer of 1665, a London tailor despatched a parcel of clothing to a client who lived in the village. Some of the clothing was second hand, and, like even the costliest of clothing at that time, it carried fleas. By October, no less than 25 of the people of Eyam had died of plague.

The man who took charge of the situation was the rector of Eyam, the Reverend Peter Mompesson. A man of great personal courage, sufficiently educated to realise what the outbreak could mean to the still healthy areas around him, Mompesson summoned the villagers and outlined his plan.

Eyam was in the grip of plague, but there was no reason why they should involve others in their misfortune. Mompesson suggested not only that no inhabitant of Eyam should move beyond the village boundaries, but that no outsider should be allowed in.

It was a harsh rule, but it made sense, and because they respected their Rector the people of Eyam agreed. So stones were erected in a rough circle around Eyam in order to mark the limits of the Derbyshire village. Essential provisions, such as flour and salt, were brought from neighbouring hamlets and left on certain specially-designated stones. These were paid for in money left alongside in troughs kept filled with vinegar in the belief that this would free the coins from infection.

Mompesson also gave orders that the people of Eyam, men, women, and children, should smoke as much tobacco as possible, because this was widely believed to be a safeguard against plague.

It does not seem to have been a very efficient solution. Ten months after Eyam commenced its voluntary isolation, seventy of its inhabitants had died. Sunday by Sunday, the Rector gathered a steadily-dwindling congregation on a small, horseshoe-shaped curve of turf and small trees just inside the village circle known as Cucklet Dell, and there in the clean, fresh air he did what he could to strengthen their faith and courage.

Courage they certainly needed, for by the end of the year 259 villagers had fallen victim to the plague, and in such a tiny community this meant that barely a household escaped. Fortunately, in London the pestilence was on the wane, for as often happened the plague burned itself out. The Court returned from Oxford and week by week the city filled up and became alive again.

London would take a long time to recover, but not so long as Eyam, which had sacrificed itself, and suffered so terribly, in order that its neighbouring villages should remain healthy. Probably these simply Derbyshire men and women never considered that they were doing anything out of the ordinary, but their neighbours remembered them with gratitude, and three hundred years later Eyam remains as a memorial to the heroism of ordinary folk.

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