As coronavirus spreads across the world, David Whitley takes a look back at the extremes one English village went to battling a plague.
In the graveyard outside the Eyam Parish Church is the chunky, box-like tomb of Catherine Mompesson. For her husband, Catherine’s death in August 1666 was the personal cost of a grim but noble sacrifice.
These days, the small Derbyshire village of Eyam plays host to walkers eager to stretch their legs around the Peak District National Park. But in September 1665, something altogether more sinister took residence.
That year, the plague spread from London across England. What’s remarkable about Eyam is the measures the villagers took to stop it going any further.
The Eyam Museum is full of tales about the horrors that befell the village over the course of 14 months. The bubonic plague is thought to have arrived from London in a tailor’s package. The first victim, George Viccars, was the servant who opened it.
Viccars was to be the first of 260 to die in Eyam – which had a probable population of around 650 to 750. The disease spread across the village alarmingly fast, carried by fleas living on black rats. Some people lost more than a dozen relatives.
In the spring of 1666, when the fatality numbers were still relatively low, three brave decisions were taken. William Mompesson, the village’s rector, gathered the villagers in Cucklet Delph – a natural amphitheatre with a rock arch that’s a short walk from the Eyam Hall car park. At the meeting, it was agreed that all church services would now take place in the Delph, to prevent transmission through close proximity.
It was also agreed that organised funerals and burials would be abandoned – bodies would be disposed of, by family members, as quickly as possible. Mompesson would later have to do this for his wife’s corpse.
Thirdly, and most terrifyingly, they agreed to quarantine the village. No-one was allowed in, and no-one was allowed out. All food and supplies would be left by a boundary stone to the south or a well to the north, with money paying for them to be disinfected in vinegar. The boundary stone and well are still in the same places today, at the end of walking trails.
The villagers were essentially sealing themselves in to a death trap, with the fatality rate booming over the summer of ‘66.
Some of the stories are heart-breaking. One girl would secretly meet her fiancé from the neighbouring village, with the couple standing far enough away to not pass any infection on. Then, one day, she didn’t show up. He later found out she was dead, and he remained a bachelor for the rest of his life.
There’s also the tale of the man who acted as the sexton, burying the last remaining members of families that died out entirely. Initially, he would go back and steal from the family houses as payment, but when his wife died, he took that as a punishment from God. From then on, he carried out the incredibly dangerous role without expecting reward.The most tragic tale, though, is of the woman who broke the quarantine and escaped the village.
To the east of Eyam is a field containing a circular dry stone wall. Inside it are six headstones and a tomb - the Riley graves.
Elizabeth Hancock had to bury her husband and six children here, dragging their bodies through the streets to a burial spot where they couldn’t infect others. All died with the space of eight days.
Unable to live with the grief, she ran away to nearby Sheffield, where she survived the plague.
But the villagers who stayed, at an appalling cost, helped to ensure that hundreds of thousands of others survived too.
Eyam is a 56km drive south-east of Manchester. From London, using public transport, take the train from St Pancras to Chesterfield, then the 66 or 66A bus to Eyam – it will take around three-and-a-half hours. The Eyam Museum is open between 10am and 4.30pm.