Social Distancing 101 in Eyam, the Plague Village

In the year 1666, the residents of a little out-of the way village in Derbyshire, England became reluctant heroes of the Plague Year. Eyam (pronounced “Eem”) had between 350 and 800 residents in 1665. Between September and December of that year, 42 residents died of the bubonic plague that was devastating England. By the end of the fourteen months of plague, at least 260 villagers had died.

The contagion subsided in the cold winter months. But it returned in force in warm spring weather. By the spring of 1666, many families were desperate to leave–nearby villages had nowhere near the same high rate of infection. Even in faraway London, the rate of infection was much lower.

But on June 24, 1666, two village rectors took a courageous stand that no doubt saved thousands of lives. William Mompesson, who was new to the area and not popular, gathered the villagers and after much debate, persuaded them to self-quarantine. He enlisted the help of the previous rector in his arguments. It was clear to everyone that isolation in the village very likely was a death sentence for most of the people. But somehow, for the good of those in nearby towns and villages, they agreed.

William Mompesson, photo from BBC article cited below

Mompesson promised to relieve their suffering as much as possible and to stay with them to the end. He preached to the parishioners in a clearing in the woods rather than risking close contact in the church. He did as he promised; he survived, but his young wife died after nursing villagers for many months.

The Earl of Devonshire from his grand family seat at Chatsworth promised to provide food and supplies if the villagers isolated themselves. Items were regularly left in a certain location and the donors never made contact with the villagers. Aristocratic Chatsworth, with its vast profitable lands and countless residents, was worlds away from the humble working-class village of Eyam. It still is. The Cavendish family, owners of Chatsworth since 1549, still owe a debt of gratitude to Eyam villagers.

Photo from BBC article cited below

By August of 1666, villagers were dying painful, gruesome deaths at the rate of five or six a day. A woman named Elizabeth Hancock lost her husband and six children over a period of eight days. She had no option but to drag their bodies outside and bury them herself. (Later, another villager survived the illness and took over the job of burying victims).

At the time, no one knew the cause of bubonic plague, or how exactly it was transmitted. There was no effective treatment, and the death rate was about 30 to 90%.

The plague had arrived in 1665 in Eyam in a bale of cloth which contained infected fleas from London. A young tailor’s assistant named George Viccars opened the bale and found the cloth damp, so he hung it in front of the fire to dry.

Photo from BBC article cited below

The heat of the fire activated the fleas. Incubation of plague once a person is exposed takes only a few days. George Viccars was dead within the week, the first plague death in Eyam.

Today, Eyam is a sleepy village whose main feature is its church and graveyard, plus stone cottages with plaques naming those who died.

The church features a Plague Window that tells the sad but inspiring story.

Three of the above photos are from the BBC article cited below. Unless otherwise noted, photos are mine.

I highly recommend a book about Eyam in the year of plague, “Year of Wonders,” by Geraldine Brooks.

As the world deals with a new and dangerous pathogen, the coronavirus, we will most likely see many similar stories. Some people will selfishly hoard food and supplies, but some will also act with quiet heroism. May we support our scientists and caregivers, and may we treat each other kindly.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35064071

Here is a more recent article about Eyam:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/03/02/bubonic-plague-coronavirus-quarantine-eyam-england/

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