The remarkable story of Eyam’s self-quarantine in the 17th century
November 1st 1666, All Saints Day. The plague takes away its latest victim in the remote village of Eyam, England.
One of the many deaths from the Great Plague of 1665/66, but not only. Because this twenty-year-old boy, the last of the 260 people in the village taken away from the disease, perhaps he would have had a chance to save himself, like others, if he had not accepted a very difficult but sensible decision, made approximately four months earlier from all the inhabitants of Eyam.
From 1665 to 1666, the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague ravaged London, killing about 25% of the city’s population. Earlier outbreaks of plague, also known as Black Death, were responsible for killing an estimated 25 million people in Europe in the 14th century. Though the 1665 epidemic was mainly confined to London and Cambridge, an outbreak occurred in Eyam, which was more than 200 kilometers away.
It all began 14 months earlier, when a roll of fabric arrived from London for an upcoming party. But the fabric was damp, so the tailor’s assistant, George Viccars, placed it next to the fire. However, there were infected fleas in the cloth, as the epidemic had already broken out in London, and the disease spread rapidly to the remote village. The bacteria that cause plague exist in a long-term cycle between certain rodent species and fleas but can be transmitted to humans in numerous ways, most commonly through flea bites. George Viccars was the first to die on September 7, 1665, and in December there were 42 victims, in a village of about 800 inhabitants.
When spring came, the disease spread with increasing virulence, so many thought of running away from the village to escape the epidemic. However, at that dramatic juncture, there was a man who realized how bad that escape would be: the plague would spread to all the surrounding areas, in neighboring cities of Sheffield and Manchester, without however offering guarantees of salvation to those who run away. It is Reverend William Mompesson (in photo), supported by his much loved predecessor, Thomas Stanley, expelled from the Church of England as a supporter of Cromwell, like the majority of the inhabitants of Eyam.
The two, starting from May 1666, took simple measures to limit the infection in the village: burying their dead became a task for the family they belonged to, and religious services took place outdoors, to maintain an adequate distance between people. But the most drastic decision, to prevent the spread of the plague outside Eyam, was to quarantine the entire village: from June 24th no one could enter or leave.
Someone, on behalf of the Earl of Devonshire, would have brought the necessary for subsistence, leaving him on the edge of the country.
As a side note of this sad story, we can remember the “Boundary Stones” willing to delimit the perimeter of the village, where the inhabitants left the coins soak in vinegar to pay for supplies from outside.
Villagers accept isolation, although someone appears to have evaded quarantine. Mompesson himself, before his proposal was approved, sent his children to Sheffield, and he would have let go also his wife Catherine leave too, who instead decided to stay by his side. The reverend buried her on 23 August 1666.
August was the most tragic month for Eyam, probably because of the heat that made fleas more active. Every day there were five or six dead, entire families were exterminated, even if someone miraculously escaped. Like Elizabeth Hancock, who buried her husband and six of her children within eight days. Or like the improvised gravedigger Marshall Howe, who fell ill at the beginning of the epidemic, but managed to recover. Thinking that he have become immune, the man offered himself for the thankless task of burying the dead, perhaps even to take possession of some of their personal belongings. And it was probably those objects that infected his wife and two-year-old son, and both died.
Several sources speak of 430 survivors out of a total of about 800 inhabitants.
The young Emmot Sydall, who was engaged to a boy from a nearby village, Rowland Torre, was not so lucky. When Eyam went into quarantine, the two lovers decided to see each other every night, but from a distance. No word between them, only a fleeting glance to show their love.
Emmot, who lost her father and four of her brothers to the plague, did not show up at the end of April. Rowland kept going, every day, and every day was a new disappointment. Still, he still hoped to find the girl alive when, at the end of 1666, the village was considered safe, and he was among the first to return.
But Emmot didn’t make it. She was one of the victims of the plague, a brave girl in a country of brave people.
There are many interesting sites within this small village, including Mompesson’s Well, where food and medicine were left for the villagers in exchange for coins, a boundary stone set between Eyam and neighbouring village Stoney Middleton, where supplies were left at a safe distance, while at the centre of the village is a row of Plague cottages with signs that commemorate some of the first victims. Every year on “Plague Sunday” (the last sunday in August) a memorial service is held in the nearby hollow of Cucklett Delf, site of the outdoor services held by Reverend Mompesson during the plague years.