The story of the Eyam plague
"Here inscribed are the names..."
As the warmth of the summer of 1665 began to fade, the Derbyshire village of Eyam was struck by a devastating outbreak of the Black Death that was, in the months to follow, to claim the lives of more than 260 residents, out of an estimated population of 800.
The death toll would certainly have been far higher, and the illness spread much wider, had the villagers of Eyam not agreed to quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of the outbreak. Eyam's sacrifice helped to save the lives of neighbouring villagers but at terrible cost to the residents of Eyam, who faced the disease alone and unprotected.
There is no single, universally accepted, account of the origins of the Eyam plague. The first detailed histories of the outbreak were not written until the 1700s, and not all of the earliest accounts are now seen as reliable. However, most historians now accept that the Black Death (the 'bubonic plague') arrived in Eyam when infected cloth was delivered to the house of the village tailor, in late August or September. The cloth was infested with the rat fleas now known to be responsible for the spread of the disease.
The first fatality
The first Eyam resident to fall victim to the plague was George Viccars, the assistant to Alexander Hadfield, who had ordered the cloth most likely from suppliers in London. The infection spread rapidly through the house, claiming the lives of Viccars, his two stepsons, his employer, and his closest neighbours.
The outbreak then spread quickly throughout Eyam, taking the lives of whole families and households but inexpicably sparing the lives of others. To the disbelief of the village, some Eyam residents remained unaffected by the illness, as others around them perished. Others fell ill with the horrific symptoms of the disease, only to recover when all hope seemed lost.
A detail from the parish death register
With seventeenth century physicians offering few answers, the villagers looked to other explanations for the plague's 'wrath', and improvised with 'folk medicines' that they hoped might ward off infection.
The winter months bought some respite, as the rat population diminished and with it the number of active plague-fleas able to infect the villagers. But unaware of the true nature of the contagion, the residents of Eyam celebrated the plague's demise too soon.
With the return of warmer weather, in the Spring of 1666, the rats re-emerged, and their fleas began to spread the deadly baccilus once more to even more appalling effect.
Deaths in the village reached a peak in August, when the plague took the lives of 78 of Eyam's residents. By the time the outbreak receded, almost a third of the village had been wiped out, and the community of Eyam devastated.
What proved of decisive importance in preventing the spread of the disease across the Derbyshire peaks and towards the larger cities to the north and south, was the acceptance of the village of the need for an effective quarantine.
The surviving records do not make it clear exactly how the decision to isolate Eyam was made. They also say little about how the villagers viewed their 'duty' once the cordon around their community had been established. Yet is seems that there were almost no attempts to break the quarantine line, even as the infection peaked.
It is also apparent that the surrounding villages kept up their support for Eyam, providing food and other supplies to its inhabitants leaving these goods at the edge of the cordon despite the risks that this entailed. In part, this was an acknowledgement by their neighbours of the sacrifice that Eyam was making. At the same time, those providing the aid knew that without it the starving villagers of Eyam might have broken the quarantine en masse in search of food and so infected other local communities. Perhaps the generosity of Eyam's helpers was a mixture of charitable concern and pragmatic self-interest.
The records suggest that Eyam residents were keen to pay for these 'plague supplies' leaving money at the collection points. Sometimes these coins went uncollected, but at other times Eyam's donors 'disinfected' the coins by soaking them in vinegar.
According to most accounts, the quarantine plan was instigated by the village rector, the Reverend William Mompesson, with the support of his predecessor the Reverend Thomas Stanley. One way or another, Mompesson and Stanley secured the acceptance of the village to a three-part plan.
In urging his parishoners to accept the proposals, Mompesson aware of the sacrifice he was asking from them is said to have urged them to find strength in their religous convictions. Quoting the gospel of John (15:13) he reminded them of the Biblical edict: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends".
The first provision of the quarantine was that plague victims would be buried, as quickly as possible, near their homes, rather than in the consecrated ground of the village cemetery. This was to minimize the risk of the infection spreading from corpses awaiting a 'proper, christian' funeral.
The second provision stipulated that religious services would be held in open-air assemblies, rather than in the close confines of the church in the hope that this too would avoid the risk of the disease spreading amongst parishoners crammed together in the pews.
The third provision was the establishment of a cordone sanitaire around the village, beyond which no Eyam resident sick or apparently healthy could pass.
It is not surprising that, before the cordon was established, several of Eyam's wealthier families had fled the homes something beyond the means of ordinary villagers.
Another detail from the parish plague record
Once the cordon had been set up, infractions were few. One popular story from the time tells of an Eyam woman who broke the quarantine to visit the nearby village of Tideswell on market day. Once she was identified, she had to flee home under a hail of missiles.
But all the surviving records suggest that few Eyam residents challenged the quarantine.
In the spring and summer of 1666, as the death toll multiplied, the atmosphere of fear and dread in the village where normal life had come to a complete standstill must have been as overwhelming as the stench of death.
Yet Monpesson's provisions ensured that the sickness did not spread even to the nearby villages of Grindleford or Bakewell. It also meant that the villagers of Eyam were trapped in the very houses and barns where the infected rats and fleas thrived unaware of the cause of the pestilence that had befallen them.
A natural immunity?
The plague tore through the captive villagers, sparing only those who escaped infection by chance, and (scientists are becoming increasingly convinced) those with a genetic predisposition a 'natural immunity' which left them resistant to the disease.
By the autumn of 1666, the outbreak had ended presumably as the infected rat population itself died out (with food supplies short, and villagers now hyper-vigilant about 'pests' of all kinds).
The individual and collective costs of Eyam's act of sacrifice were terrible but the village survived, and eventually recovered from the disaster. Even today, the village contains many families able to trace their local ancestry back to the time of the plague.
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