It is 1665 and London is overrun by Yersinia pestis, better known as plague.
It’s a strain of this bacterium-Y.p medievalis- that caused the plague in Europe between 1346 and 1353. Better known to us as The Black Death. In 1665 the Great Plague of London was no less horrific, with over 68,000 deaths, though the true figure is thought to be over 100,000. For the most part, London was shut down, King Charles and his courtiers fled to Oxford where royal guards all but sealed the city. Unemployment was high as trade came to a juddering halt.
North of London lies the small village of Eyam. A picturesque gathering of houses in the Peak District that has a history stretching back into antiquity. Small and untouched by the sickness due to its size and essentially its lack of significance. However, in August 1665 that would change with near cataclysmic results. The local tailor received cloth from London, and his assistant laid it out to air by the fire. It was here it was discovered to be infested with rat fleas. Within a few days the assistant, George Viccars, was dead.
As it spread the village, unlike Parliament and the Royal Court, acted decisively. The newly appointed Rector, William Mompesson who was 28, decided it was his duty to ensure the disease did not spread. Being unpopular with the villagers he went to the former Rector, Thomas Stanley, to enlist his help. Between them, they came up with a plan and spoke to the villagers, Mompesson vowing to stay with them even if it cost him his life. The entire village went into strict quarantine. Signs were erected around the village boundary and on roads. Throughout there were almost no attempts to try to cross the boundary.
Eyam was provided with food by the surrounding villages, likely fearful but also aware their fate rested in Eyam’s hands. The Earl of Devonshire himself also provided supplies that were left at chosen points at the village boundary. Troughs and pots were filled with vinegar, and money to pay for these goods was placed inside. Their limited knowledge meant that they knew vinegar helped to kill off the disease, even if they didn’t know why.
All victims were buried quickly and as near to the place they died as possible, rather than transporting them through the village to the cemetery. The church was locked to avoid the congregation gathering in the narrow pews. Open-air services were held instead. The village isolated themselves and indeed took measures that we would recognise as common practice today.
On November 1 1666 Abraham Morten would pass, the final victim of the pestilence in Eyam. 260 people had died in the village, the population had been around 800 when the plague struck. The toll was heavy for such a small village. Elizabeth Hancock lost her husband and six children in the space of eight days, burying them close to the family farm in accordance with the decree. Another man by the name of Marshall Howe contracted the disease but survived. He helped to bury the victims but would often help himself to the possessions they had when they died. It is thought his wife and two-year-old son contracted the disease from these items. On the 17 August 1666 Elizabeth Mompesson, wife of William, died, having selflessly tended to many of the victims.
It took 14-months for the disease to pass, but in that time the sacrifice the villagers made no doubt saved thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives. Indeed 1666 would see the last large scale outbreak of plague in England. The selfless heroism of those who lived in Eyam is something that rings out throughout history. They faced something they couldn’t comprehend and did all they could to ensure that their fellow countryman didn’t suffer as they did.