Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The plague village of Eyam

The great plague of London in 1665 was until this year the last substantial epidemic in England. London had three major epidemics, of what later came to be known as the Black Death, between 1563 and 1665. Central government and local authorities tried to control the spread of the plague in 1665 by isolating those affected and restricting the movement of others. It was the destruction of large parts of London during the Great Fire of September 1665 which finally relieved London of the conditions which helped to spread the Black Death. The last visitation of the plague on the mainland of England occurred in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in September 1665. I visited Eyam two years ago, travelling from the Welsh border town of Hay on Wye through the beautiful English Peak District. Eyam is located in the heart of the Derbyshire Peak District and will forever be associated with the plague of 1665/’66 which claimed over 259 lives during a period of self-imposed quarantine. Eyam is a beautiful and historic place which today is known as the Plague Village. Its story is one of community heroism and effective leadership by two clergymen – the 26-year-old Rector of Eyam, Rev. William Mompresson and his predecessor Rev. Thomas Stanley. The latter, a staunch Puritan, had served in the parish for 16 years but resigned on the passing of the Act of Uniformity and the introduction of the new Book of Common Prayer. When the first plague death occurred in the village the two clerics called a public meeting to decide on future action. The villager’s decision would make Eyam one of the most famous villages in the annals of English social history. The plague arrived in the village when a box of clothes was delivered from London to the village tailor. The infected clothing caused the death of the tailor and his death on 6th September was the first of 259 deaths in the village over the next thirteen months. In a village with a population of approximately 350 this was an extraordinary high death rate. The reason it was so high was because the villagers, guided by their rector and his predecessor, agreed to impost a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the village. They agreed to isolate themselves in the village to prevent the spread of the plague beyond Eyam. The quarantine was effective as no deaths occurred outside the village. The villagers had to be fed and as the village was not self sufficient it fell to the Earl of Devonshire who lived nearby in Chatsworth House to provide food. It was brought to dropping zones on the village boundary, ensuring that no person entered the village itself. It says much for the honour of the villagers of Eyam that having agreed to isolate themselves there were only two persons known to have left the village during the period of the plague. When I visited Eyam the first port of call was the parish church of St. Lawrence which dates from 1350 with many additions since then. I was intrigued to find in the grounds of the church a magnificent 8th century Celtic cross which one time may have been a wayside preaching cross. A little to the left of the Celtic cross was the tomb of Catherine, wife of Rev. Mompresson, who died of the plague on 15th August 1666. Hers is the only known plague grave in the parish churchyard as plague victims were buried by family and neighbours in gardens and nearby fields. Most of those graves were unmarked and are now unknown. The tragic events of 1665/’66 are remembered in present day Eyam where the community celebrates the heroic stance of a previous generation on the last Sunday in August which is designated Plague Sunday. The late John Clifford, Eyam’s local historian, whose wife Francine I had the pleasure of meeting, first wrote his account of Eyam’s plague in 1989. He recounted the tragic loss of local families, highlighting the seven members of the Hancock family who died. The once scattered headstones which marked the Hancock graves have been gathered together and are now in the care of the National Trust. The community isolation of the Eyam villagers was intended, not to protect the local people, but to prevent the plague escaping to outlying areas. The villagers sacrificed themselves for the sake of others. Today we are asked to self-isolate to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. What we are required to do is little compared to the extraordinary self-sacrifice of the Eyam villagers.

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