The Great Plague of London affected many places across England, but one small village in Derbyshire called Eyam, will always be remembered for the heroic sacrifice made by its villagers to arrest the spread of infection.
The bubonic plague was a much feared disease in mediaeval Europe. Known as the ‘black death’, it turned victim’s skin to patches of black as the flesh rotted within. This was accompanied by inflamed glands or 'buboes', compulsive vomiting, splitting headache and eventually death. When the disease first took epidemic proportions between 1346 and 1353, it wiped out an estimated 100 million people from the face of the earth, or nearly one-fourth of the world population. The bubonic plague broke again in London in 1665–66, and although smaller in scale compared to the 14th century outbreak, it still claimed some 100,000 lives in London alone.
Photo credit: Donald Judge/Flickr
The plague arrived at the village of Eyam, located 35 miles southeast of Manchester, in the summer of 1665 when a London merchant sent a bale of flea-infested cloth to the village tailor, Alexander Hadfield. The tailor's assistant called George Vicars was said to have opened the bale and hung the damp cloth in front of the hearth to dry, unwittingly releasing the disease-ridden fleas. Within a week, Vicars was dead and before long the rest of the household had fallen ill and died.
As the disease began to spread around the village, panic set in and some people initially suggested that they should flee. It was then a courageous rector named William Mompesson stepped in and persuaded the villagers not to leave the village, as doing so put the neighbouring towns and villages at risk. It must have been a painful decision to take, but at length the villagers agreed and decided to quarantine themselves even though it would mean death for many of them.
A perimeter of boundary stones were setup around the periphery of the village, and each and everyone of Eyam’s residents —even those who were healthy— vowed not to cross it until the disease had run its course. The village received food and other assistance from neighbouring villagers who left bundles of meat, grains and other items at the boundary stones. In return, Eyam’s residents would leave coins in a water trough filled with vinegar, which they believed acted as a disinfectant. These boundary stones can still be visited today. The water trough where money was exchanged is now called Mompesson’s well.
Aside from quarantining themselves, the villagers took steps to minimize the spread of infection within the village. The church was relocated to another place to distance itself and the attendants of the church’s service from the graveyard, and families were required to bury their own dead. Many surviving members had to go through the trauma experience of burying their entire families. Sometimes, bodies were dragged down the street by tying ropes around the victim's’ feet to avoid contact with the deceased. Mompesson himself had to bury his own family.
After 14 months, the disease disappeared as abruptly as it arrived. By then, at least 260 villagers out of the original 350 were dead. Many of them could have escaped death by moving away from the village but this selfless act of isolating themselves effectively stopped the spread of the disease to Northern England saving thousands.
Today, there are plaques, signs and memorials all around the village, and on the last Sunday of every August —known as Plague Sunday— a Commemorative Service is held at Eyam. People visit these still present boundary stone and drop coins as an honour to plague victims.
The Eyam parish church. Photo credit: Tom Parnell/Flickr
Mompesson's well, where neighbours left food and medicines, and villagers left coins. Photo credit: Eamon Currey/Flickr
Mompesson's well. The trough was filled with vinegar to disinfect the coins. Photo credit: Darren/Flickr
A boundary stone. Photo credit: Eamon Currey/Flickr
The Riley graves where lies the bodies of Elizabeth Hancock’s husband and six children. All died within a week of each other. Photo credit:
Some of the graves at Eyam. Photo credit: Chris/Flickr
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