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Village remembered for sacrifice of residents during plague

January 30, 2019 GMT

Set almost exactly in the center of England is the county of Derbyshire. The landscape there consists of rolling hills and moorland with the southern edges of the Pennine Range in the north.

The major city and county town is Derby (pronounced Dar-bee), and the rest of the county is dotted with small towns and villages. One of these latter is the village of Eyam. It’s not a big place, less than a thousand people live there today, but it has a very long history.

The land around the village is covered with evidence of human habitation that goes back more than 3,000 years to the Bronze Age. Two thousand years ago, the Romans were there and they stayed for several hundred years. They came because this is lead-mining country and many years ago I actually got to visit a preserved Roman lead mine in the area as part of a team-building exercise.

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It was the Anglo-Saxons who established the beginnings of the village some time before the 8th century and, for over a thousand years, the place maintained a mining tradition that lasted until the 1970s when better ore deposits and new methods of extracting it caused the last of the area’s 439 mines to close.

Today the village’s main industries are agriculture and tourism. People visit from all over Britain in order to hike the moorland trails and to see the preserved lead mines, but by far the majority of visitors come to Eyam for a far different reason, one that goes back 354 years to the year 1665.

It all began with a religious festival called Wake’s Week, which for centuries has taken place over several days in September. People dressed their best for it and, in preparation for the sales the festivities would bring, the village tailor ordered a bale of cloth from London. He’d employed an assistant called George Viccars just for the event and, when the new cloth arrived, George found it was damp. Dutifully, he unrolled it and hung it in front of the fire to dry.

What George didn’t notice was that the cloth was infested with fleas, which became active in the warmth of the hearth. Normally this would not matter but the cloth, and the fleas, came from London and at that time the capital was in the throes of an outbreak of Bubonic Plague.

George Viccars came to Eyam to find work. Instead he was bitten by an infected flea. A few days later he awoke with a headache and a fever that rapidly became worse. His symptoms were similar to flu but then his lymph nodes began to swell and turn black and by the end of the week he was dead.

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He didn’t know it, but by this time some of the people in the neighboring cottages were sick too and the disease was spreading through the village. Not all of those afflicted died. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, Bubonic Plague had a fatality rate of over 60 percent and an outbreak 200 years earlier had killed more than 50 million people in Europe.

Despite some of those afflicted surviving, over the next three months 42 villagers died and by the end of the year the rest were starting to panic. Some slipped away in the night, abandoning their homes and livelihoods while more came down with the sickness. The stage seemed set for a major outbreak that could spread across the whole county but luckily there was an unlikely hero on hand.

In the 17th century the church was the center of village life and the priest, called a “rector,” was the leader. Eyam had just gone through a traumatic time with the church authorities replacing their popular priest with another, a man named William Mompesson. Mompesson had seen the plague before and knew how it could devastate a community. He was also aware of how fast it could spread and so he recruited his predecessor and together they came up with a plan, which they put to the villagers. In order to ensure the disease did not spread to the rest of the county they said the village had to isolate itself.

The plan was unpopular but the two clergymen managed to persuade the villagers to go along with it. The plan was simple. No one was allowed in or out of the village. The local Lord, the Earl of Devonshire, agreed to send food and supplies and others brought things the villagers needed, leaving them at the edge of the cordon around the village. The villagers paid for the goods by leaving coins in a cup of vinegar which was thought to sterilize them.

The isolation began in June 1666 and two months later the disease reached its peak. Five or six people were dying of the disease every day. There were survivors. One was Marshall Howe, who caught the disease early but recovered. Thinking he couldn’t get it twice, he then undertook to bury the village’s dead, taking some of their possessions as his reward. It was a wrong move and resulted in his own wife and 2-year-old child becoming victims.

Worse off than Howe was farmer’s wife Elizabeth Hancock. People from villages outside the cordon stood on a hilltop and watched in fear as, over a period of eight days, Elizabeth dragged the bodies of her husband and six children out of the house and buried them in the yard. For some reason, Elizabeth herself never got sick.

Mompesson’s own 27-year-old wife walked with him one day and was dead the next, but by that time the worst was over. There were fewer new cases in September, even less in October and by November the disease had gone. The last to die was Abraham Morton, a farmer and the 18th member of his family to succumb.

In all, 260 people from 76 families died in Eyam that year. They left less than 100 survivors, but the plague did not spread. By voluntarily isolating themselves, the people of the village had saved the rest of the county. Today their sacrifice is remembered. There are plaques on many of the cottages, commemorating those who lived and died there. The graves of Elizabeth Hancock’s family are preserved as are some of the “plague stones” where the vinegar-soaked money was left in exchange for food. Finally a memorial wreath is laid on the tomb of Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, on the last Sunday of August each year. This day is called “Plague Sunday” in memory of the village that sacrificed itself to save others.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.