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Eyam – A tale of tragedy and sacrifice

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Eyam – A tale of tragedy and sacrifice

“A human being has many divine qualities. But there has never been another unparalleled divine quality like man’s self-sacrifice, nor can there ever be.”
Sri Chinmoy
Eyam is a small village in Derbyshire, between Buxton and Chesterfield in the Peak District of England. Till the early 1660s, it was just another village amongst numerous others that lay on the trade routes from London to the rest of England. In 1665, Eyam became one of the headline villages in England. All because of the selfless actions of its 800 inhabitants. Their spirit of self-sacrifice had far reaching and life impacting outcome for the containment of the plague.
Late in the summer of 1665, one morning started as routine business at the Eyam village tailor, Alexander Hadfield’s shop. Then a life changing event took place. A parcel of cloth sent from London to the village tailor arrived. Still a routine matter. When his assistant, George Viccars, spread the cloth out by the fire to air it, he found it was infested with rat fleas. He was immediately infected and died a few days later. Life in Eyam changed for the worst in the blink of an eye.
He became the first of the plague’s victims in the village. Eyam churchwarden Joan Plant, who has researched the story recorded, “That poor man was just visiting Eyam to help make clothes for Wakes Week, a religious festival, and sadly never left.”

The infection spread at a very rapid speed throughout the autumn. Slowed down somewhat in the winter but returned with greater momentum in the spring and summer, peaking in August when 78 people died in the one month. In the 14 months the plague lasted, it claimed 260 lives out of a population of around 800.

It was at the outset of the plague that the people of Eyam decided to put themselves in mortal danger in order to stop the infection travelling to neighbouring villages and beyond. Under leadership of the rector, Rev. William Mompesson and his predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Stanley, the villagers agreed to accept strict quarantine. Eyam was not a self-supporting village and depended on outside supplies. They were supported by the Earl of Devonshire, and by other charitable but less wealthy neighbours, who provided the necessities of daily life during their period of isolation.

A three-point plan was established and agreed with the villagers. The most important part of this was the setting up of a “Cordon Sanitaire”, French expression for “sanitary cordon” or quarantine. This line went around the outskirts of the village and no Eyam resident was allowed to go beyond it. Signs were erected along the line to warn travellers not to enter. During the time of the quarantine there were almost no attempts to cross the line

As infection control measures within the village, they agreed to bury their own dead, close to their homes, rather than in dedicated graveyards, in the belief that unburied corpses would be a major driver in the spread of the contagious disease. Speed of effective reaction was essential. They also decided to worship in the open air, where it would be possible to maintain collective worship without being in close proximity with each other, because closeness ran the high of exposing themselves to danger.

Surprisingly, some villagers who were in contact with those infected by the plague, did not catch the infection. It was later established that they had a “chromosome”, thread-like structures located inside the nucleus of animal and plant cells. which gave them protection. This same chromosome has been shown to still exist in those who are direct descendants of those who not only survived the plague, they continued living in the village right until the present time. The action of the villagers in staying in the village is almost unique and makes the village the rightful place of significance that it is.
It is said that the nursery rhyme, “Ring-a-ring-of-roses” is about this event. The “ring” referred to in the rhyme represents the mark on the cheek that those who caught the plague exhibited. “Atishoo, Atishoo, we all fall down” refers to the death of those who perished rapidly due to the plague.
London, from where the plague came to Eyam was the worst hit. Around 100,000 people died accounting for 25% of the then population. By the same benchmark, Eyam lost 35% of its small population, but as a result of the self-sacrificing heroics, thousands of lives around Eyam were saved. Within Eyam, 76 families were affected by the plague; many such as the Thorpe family were wiped out completely. Rose Cottage is the remembrance place where nine members of the Thorpe family died of plague.
Elizabeth Hancock survived despite losing six children and her husband, all in the space of a few days. Elizabeth was a real strong woman who lived through the plague at Eyam in 1665-1666. A small, enclosed space with six gravestones and a tomb, cordoned by a stone wall, are the actual graves of the whole Hancock family. They all died of plague and were buried there in Riley’s Field.
On 1 November 1666, farm worker Abraham Morten gasped his final breath – the last of 260 people to die. Abraham was in his late 20s when he died. He was one of 18 Mortens listed as plague victims on the Eyam parish register.

Another heartbreaking story is about Emmott Sydall and Rowland Torre; separated from one another when the village of Eyam quarantined itself. During the plague outbreak, they met daily from a distance. They would shout their messages to each other, until one day like thousands of others, they too finally went silent.

It was the last major epidemic of the plague in England. Since the plague concentrated in London, the rich, including King Charles II, fled the capital for their country estates and the authorities did little to help the helpless Londoners Left to fend for themselves, the poor and uneducated of London were forced to face a merciless and deadly foe.

When the House of Lords finally met to discuss the crisis the following year, instead of focusing on relief measures and aid, the Houses’ priority decision was that the policy of ‘shutting up’ of infected individuals with their household would not apply to “persons of note”. The House of Lords also decided that plague hospitals would not be built near the homes of the nobility. What a sharp contrast to the selfless sacrifices of ordinary folks in Eyam to the selfish and heartless behaviour of the royals and the ruling elite.

The infection manifested itself with terrible symptoms. Spread by infected fleas from small animals, the bacteria entered the skin through a flea bite and travelled via the lymphatic system to a lymph node causing it to swell. This caused the characteristic buboes which appeared mainly under the arm but also surfaced in the neck, throat or groin area also. Combined with the black bruising under the skin surface, fever, vomiting and spasms, the plague was a truly terrifying and torturous disease.

I have visited the village of Eyam twice against the background of its history. Walking through the streets of that lovely village, especially after a visit to the Eyam Museum is a very sobering and depressing experience. The locals live normal lives now. The village once quarantined for incomings and outgoings is now flooded with tourists and visitors who come to hear tales of mostly anonymous heroism and pay homage to those who sacrificed their lives, so that life carries on for future generations.

Pictures taken during the visits tell more than words can offer, because as the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words”

Sources:

Visits to Eyam village and Museum

https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z8yd8hv/revision/5#:~:text=of%20the%20plague.-,Cures,coming%20into%20contact%20with%20victims.

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

https://clearbrian.medium.com/1665-a-journal-of-the-plague-year-outbreaks-outside-london-25a13c98d2d3

https://www.examinerlive.co.uk/news/local-news/incredible-sacrifice-plague-village-saved-18187061