Eyam the Heroic Plague Village
By Ron Hay
At present, in face of the Covid-19 pandemic, most of us are self-isolating in our family bubbles to protect ourselves from the risk of infection from without. But what would it be like to self-isolate with the infection inside our bubble and have no prospect of help from outside?
That is exactly what a whole English village did during the bubonic plague of 1665-6. Eyam, in Derbyshire, was the one place outside London to be heavily hit by the plague. A consignment of cloth from London, ordered by the local tailor, contained the fleas which spread the deadly disease.
The remarkable thing which happened in Eyam was that the vicar, William Mompesson, along with his predecessor Thomas Stanley, succeeded in persuading the villagers not to flee and risk spreading the disease to surrounding towns and villages. Instead, they agreed to stay and go into self-imposed quarantine from the outside world. At a boundary stone outside the village, an exchange point was set up where the villagers left money in vinegar, which was the only disinfectant they had, and people from surrounding villages brought food in return.
Between 7th September 1665 and 1st November 1666 the plague took a heavy toll in the village. In some cases entire families were wiped out. One woman lost her husband and 6 children within eight days. In times of plague people had to bury their own, so she had to dig all their graves. In all, 260 people died from the plague in Eyam out of a population of around 700.
It seems extraordinary that the villagers did not break ranks and flee in face of the plague’s impact but instead stayed and kept to their self-imposed quarantine. William Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, was one of the plagues’ victims. He had tried to persuade her to leave before the quarantine began, but she would not dessert him. Because of Eyam’s sacrificial response the plague did not spread any further in the north of England and a potentially much greater death toll was avoided in larger nearby centres such as Manchester and Sheffield.
Of course, William Mompesson and the residents of Eyam were motivated by their Easter faith – by the example of Jesus and his great act of self-sacrifice in going to Calvary for our redemption. No doubt, they were very conscious of his words: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Their story remains an inspiration to this day. And it is remarkable that, without anything like our modern scientific and medical knowledge, they did exactly what we know to be necessary to contain a pandemic.
I first heard the story of Eyam from a parishioner in Sumner-Redcliffs when I was vicar there some years ago. In September 2000, my wife, Liz, and I travelled to Britain to visit our son who was on a GAP year working at an outdoor education centre in Wales. We travelled to Derbyshire to visit friends in Dronfield and made a point of going to Eyam. It was a moving experience to walk the streets past the “plague cottages” with plaques marking where the first victims died. The museum was closed, so we went back to the church and appreciated the historical displays there and the signs of contemporary life – there was obviously a large active youth group. The parishioner at the display desk told us the church was full on a Sunday, people came from all around to attend, but it was too “happy-clappy” for his liking. I like to think that William Mompesson would be pleased.