English Ex­cur­sions: Eyam — The Der­byshire Plague Vil­lage

This England - - Contents - Heather Whe­lan

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.

Mom­pes­son’s Well where food was left for the vil­lagers. DAVID HUNTER

The Miner’s Arms (for­merly The King’s Head) was built in 1630, be­fore tragedy struck the vil­lage.

Eyam Hall and the vil­lage stocks.

Rose Cot­tage (left) where the Thorpe fam­ily died, Labur­num Cot­tage (right) the old­est oc­cu­pied cot­tage and the dwelling now known as Plague Cot­tage.

The Tea Rooms were once a pub called The Bold Rod­ney inn, where four mem­bers of the Row­land fam­ily died.

A sun­dial, dated 1775, above the door of the church. In the church a stained glass win­dow tells the plague story.

The register of plague vic­tims makes som­bre read­ing.

The An­glo-saxon cross in the church­yard.

A quiet cor­ner of the vil­lage.

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