Eyam - A Lesson From History

25th Mar 2020

eyam-plague-1665

As we are Peak District National Park residents and given the current Covid-19 crisis, it is hard for us not to draw some parallels between the current situation and the fate that beset the small Derbyshire village of Eyam way back in the mid 1600’s.  Situated only about 20 minutes drive from where I am typing this in Castleton, Eyam is a beautiful village popular with visitors and with a thriving community.

Although in 1665-66 the Bubonic Plague was ravaging London, the people of sleepy Eyam must have felt there was no reason to worry.  Yet, big trouble came knocking at their door. The plague arrived in Eyam via a roll of infested cloth and soon villagers started to fall. At the time the nature of the affliction may not have been thoroughly understood, but it was at least soon realised that minimising contact between humans was the key to survival.  

The newly arrived Eyam priest was a man called William Mompesson.  He understood that the village had a responsibility.  If they continued to mix the plague would quickly spread to neighbouring major conurbations, but if they isolated themselves within the confines of the village they may just stand a chance of containing the spread.  No one could know what the cost to the villagers would be, but he knew it was a sacrifice they had to make.

Mompesson managed to convince the villagers and the plan was soon put in place.  The village went into self imposed quarantine (a word derived from the Italian term quaranta giorni which I understand is in reference to the 14th century practice requiring plague-infected Venice ships to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing).

The villagers agreed to shut themselves away until either they had all perished or the plague had run its course.  It must have been a terrifying prospect and the ultimate example of self sacrifice for the greater good.  If you visit the village nowadays you can visit the boundary stone where villagers would place money in vinegar filled holes to pay for food and medicine left by their anxious neighbours.  

Even within the village desperate efforts were made to protect occupants from each other. In an an extreme example of social distancing, the villagers self isolated.  For those that perished, and there were many, they held open-air funerals or families buried their own dead in fields and gardens. There are lots of examples of the terrible tragedy that unfolded.  On a hill above the village are the ‘Riley graves’ (named after the local farm) where Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six children in a bleak windswept field. Jane Hawksworth survived, but lost 25 relatives. 

By the time the villagers emerged more than a quarter of the approximately 1,000 population were dead. Even Mompesson lost his wife to the outbreak. The toll was terrible but the plague was contained. Given our current situation it is important that we learn from the past.

Posted by Paul