Eyam - Plague (1665)

This is a remarkable story of a whole village trying to stop the plague from spreading across Derbyshire and beyond.

In 1665 the plague was raging in London and a tailor received some cloth from his supplier there. The cloth had become damp so the tailor in Eyam, George Viccars, dried it in front of the fire. The likelihood is that rat fleas were in the cloth, so the deadly bubonic plague was let loose on an unsuspecting Derbyshire village.

Someone with bubonic plague would normally die in a few days. The tailor was buried on September 7th. The next burial was on September 22nd, another on the 23rd, another on the 26thetc. On October 23 more died. By the end of April 1666, there had been 73 deaths, although perhaps a dozen would have been from natural causes.

The number in the village is a still open to question. The original was thought to be 350, but later research tends to indicate around 800. It appears that some people escaped the village in the early days, in particular several children were sent away. These would have been the wealthier inhabitants who had the means to travel.

In May there were only two deaths as a result of the plague, which must have raised the hopes of some that it had ended, but others would have known that the summer months were the most dangerous. Already great tragedy had taken place (six out of eight of one family had died and all nine of another), but much more was to come.

It was at this time that the historic meeting of the vicars took place. In 1630 Shoreland Adams had been appointed, but in 1644 the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell replaced him with Thomas Stanley. In those days many vicars, who were known to be lazy, ignorant and ineffectual, were replaced by 'born again' Puritans. The state of the Church was therefore much improved, but on the accession of Charles II everything was reversed. The Act of Uniformity in 1662had the effect of removing 2,000 'born again' vicars and replacing them with high churchmen. In this way Stanley was removed and replaced by Adams. In 1664 Adams died, being replaced by William Mompesson.

Interestingly Stanley was living in the village in 1665 despite the Five Mile Act of the same year whereby the removed clergy were not allowed to live within five miles of their previous church. It is likely that the religious beliefs of these two men would have been poles apart, and yet they came together to work for the benefit of all.

Although Mompesson has been given all the plaudits, it is likely that Stanley was the one who made the plan happen. The village loved Stanley and had earlier pleaded in vain to the patron of the living to let him remain as their rector; whereas Mompesson had only been in the village a few months. It is unlikely that the village would have got behind the scheme that was proposed had Mompesson alone suggested it.

These men expected the plague to spread in the summer months, so the put forward a plan to the villagers to prevent the disease from spreading beyond the boundaries of Eyam. They decided that there would be no more organised funerals as their time was taken up with looking after the dying. Also, it was important to get the dead buried quickly, so from that time people were buried in their gardens or on the hill behind the church. This would have been dreadful for some because they knew that they were going to be buried in unconsecrated ground.

Next, they decided to lock the church until the epidemic was over. This was because they considered that one needed to keep at least twelve feet away from someone to avoid infection. In fact we now know that the infection distance is two metres or four if there is a sneeze. As nearly everyone went to church it was a likely place to pick up an infection, so it was decided to have services outside so that people could stand apart.

Their third decision was to quarantine the town. Most of the people would not have had the means to leave, but it was still a brave decision the village made. The village was not self-supporting so the Earl of Devonshire, who lived only a few miles away, arranged for food and medicine to be left on the outskirts of the village. There were two main points where food etc was left, one north of the town and one south. There was a well in the north and a stone in the south. Money in payment was left in water so that the germs would not spread and there were holes in the stone to leave money in vinegar which had the same effect. This was not a novel idea it was a well known one.

The quarantine was successful as no incidence of the plague happened outside the village, although two people did escape.

In June there were over twenty deaths, July 56 and August 78. The last death was in October bringing the total to 260. So about a third of the village died. Both the vicars survived, but Mompesson's wife died.

Taken from the 38 page booklet, 'Eyam Plague' by John Clifford.

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