English Excursions: Eyam — The Derbyshire Plague Village
When I was a child, a book titled The Brave Men of Eyam was on my parents’ bookshelf so I grew up knowing all about the village and the plague that arrived there in 1665. It is a tale worth remembering, though, as the village people’s bravery still has relevance today, not least because of some interesting DNA.
It is hard to imagine the hold bubonic plague took on communities in the days before antibiotics and modern medical care. Only when we get occasional scares like the SARS outbreak and swine flu do we get an inkling of how relentless these virulent diseases were. Although plagues swept through crowded cities like London, country people probably thought themselves safe, tucked away in villages like Eyam.
It was just bad luck that the plague arrived in Eyam, in a chest of cloth sent from London to tailor George Viccars who was lodging with Alex and Mary Hadfield. The cloth was damp and Viccars had it aired before the fire, which stimulated the fleas that infested the cloth.
Fleas that had lived on rats were carriers of the bubonic plague and George Viccars became the first victim of the outbreak, dying on 7th September 1665. In what are now known as the Plague Cottages the epidemic spread quickly; Mary Hadfield’s son was the next to die, then her neighbour Peter Hawksworth.
Over the next few weeks Mary’s second son and her husband died; she survived but lost 13 relatives. Next door at Rose Cottage all nine members of the Thorpe family died, from the grandparents to the baby. Mary’s other neighbour Jane Hawksworth survived but lost 25 relatives. By now the villagers realised that the strange fever that was killing their neighbours was the dreaded plague.
William Mompesson, the rector of Eyam, and his wife Catherine, had arrived in the village the previous year. Together with Thomas Stanley (who had been the rector for 14 years during parliamentarian times and was then a nonconformist minister) Mompesson formulated a plan to try and contain the plague. He told the villagers they must isolate themselves to prevent the plague spreading to other villages. Most people agreed to stay, though possibly they didn’t have the means to flee elsewhere as did the Bradshaw family of Bradshaw Hall. For most villagers their brave actions meant certain death.
Mompesson organised food to be sent from nearby places to the boundaries of the village, to the north at a spring now known as Mompesson’s Well and at the boundary stone, called the coolstone, to the south. Coins left in these places in exchange for food or other items were soaked in vinegar to disinfect them. Church services were held in a secluded natural hollow called Cucklet Delph,
where families could stand apart from others in an attempt to contain the disease.
As more and more of the villagers died there were many tragic stories. One involved young lovers, the Eyam girl, Emmott Syddall, and Rowland Torre, her sweetheart from Stoney Middleton, who used to meet secretly in the Delph. When six of her family had died Emmott told Rowland not to come again. Unknown to Rowland, Emmott died in April 1666. When the plague finally ran its course Rowland was the first to enter Eyam, hopefully seeking his girl. Brokenhearted, Rowland never married though he lived into his old age.
In an isolated part of Eyam called Riley there was a small farm which was home to the Hancocke family. How Mrs. Hancocke bore the ordeal of burying her husband and six children over a period of eight days is beyond comprehension. The seven graves stand today in a small enclosure known as the Riley Graves. It is understandable that the grief-stricken Mrs. Hancocke fled to Sheffield to live with her surviving son.
Finally, after 14 months’ quarantine, the plague subsided and there were no more deaths. It was originally thought that only 83 villagers survived while 260 had died. Historians now think the village may have had a population of around 800 in 1665, with 273 deaths occurring during the plague.
The plague is remembered in all sorts of ways. Children still sing: A ring, a ring of roses, A pocket full of posies, Atishoo, atishoo,
We all fall down. The “roses” are thought to refer to the reddish-purple patches on plague sufferers while the “posies” were nosegays of herbs thought to keep the plague at bay. “We all fall down” reflects the fact that there was no known cure for the plague.
In Eyam itself a “Plague Sunday” service has been held annually in Cucklet Delph for over 100 years. Commemorated on the last Sunday in August it is close to the death of Reverend William Mompesson’s wife Catherine, who died in 1666. In the Church of St. Lawrence a stained glass window, installed in 1985, tells the story of the plague village showing the main characters and scenes from the tragedy.
Eyam recovered from its terrible ordeal and today it is an attractive place to stroll around. There are many information boards and signs on the cottages commemorating those who died there. Eyam Hall, a 17th-century manor house built shortly after the plague, has been owned by the Wright family for 300 years and is managed by the National Trust. On the green opposite the hall the village stocks still remain, a reminder of the rough justice doled out to the community in days gone by.
St. Lawrence’s Church dates back to Saxon times and is well worth looking around. In the churchyard there is an intricately carved 8th-century AngloSaxon cross, said to be one of the best preserved in the country. The cross was once a preaching cross situated on the nearby moor.
Eyam Museum, opened in 1994, has exhibits on local history but particularly focuses on the plague of 166566. It has always been of interest that some people survived the plague while their families died around them. Mrs. Hancocke, who buried her family at the Riley Graves, never became ill. Marshall Howe, the unofficial village gravedigger, who handled many infected bodies, also remained immune to the plague.
In 2000 researchers from the USA began DNA research on residents of Eyam who had family connections dating back to the time of the plague. The scientists found that a higher than normal number of the population carried a genetic mutation which gives immunity to bubonic plague. This mutation is known as “Delta 32” and explains why, although everyone in Eyam was exposed to the infection, not everyone caught the disease. The survivors produced children with the same mutation. What is of great importance today is that those individuals who inherit Delta 32 from both parents have immunity to HIV/AIDS. More information on the implications of Delta 32 can be found in the museum. The story begun 300 years ago continues.