Eyam – The Peak District Plague Village
The beautiful Peak District village of Eyam today is a peaceful, idyllic place, offering a perfect day out for visitors in a stunning location. It has a tragic but fascinating past, however, with a lesson of true courage that’s just as valid now as it was hundreds of years ago.
We tell the story of Inspiring Eyam – The Peak District Plague Village.
A tragic occurrence
In early September 1665 the village tailor of Eyam, a man called Alexander Hadfield, took delivery of a damp bolt of cloth from London. As he and his assistant, George Viccars, dried it out in his cottage, it quickly became apparent that the cloth was infested with fleas. Tragically, those fleas came from London rats that were infected with the plague, and thus this deadly disease was unwittingly brought into the peaceful Peak District countryside.
Within only a few days George Viccars had died, with the very sad accolade of being Eyam’s first plague victim.
The disease spread quickly through the village, killing many more residents over the following weeks.
By the end of 1665 more than 40 villagers had died and many more were very sick.
Understandably, the residents were terrified. Those that could leave the area were preparing to flee to save themselves.
An act of great heroism
In June 1666 the newly-appointed community rector, Rev William Mompesson, stepped in. He managed to convince his parishioners that to flee would mean spreading the disease to neighbouring villages. To save others, he explained, the villagers must quarantine themselves off from the rest of the country and remain ‘locked’ within Eyam.
Rev Mompesson assured the people of Eyam that if they agreed, he would arrange for food and supplies to be brought into the village for them. He also told them that he would stay with them and ease their suffering as far as he was able to.
Incredibly, the villagers of Eyam agreed.
This huge act of self-sacrifice meant that nobody could now leave or enter the village. Food and supplies were left at the borders of Eyam on a series of boundary stones, with the money to pay for them left on the same stones in exchange. The money was placed in small hollows in the stones that were filled with vinegar, which was believed to kill the disease. The villagers of Eyam were entirely self sufficient; they administered medicines themselves, and they buried their own dead.
A community devastated
In total the plague in Eyam lasted for 14 months; the last plague victim died there in November 1666. It killed at least 270 of the 350 villagers, including Rev Mompesson’s wife. Alexander Hadfield, the fateful tailor who unwittingly began the tale, was also killed, although he survived until August 1666.
The devastation within the community is illustrated starkly by the Riley graves just outside the village. They mark the resting places of just one family; Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and 6 of her children in only 8 days.
The effect of courage
The courage of the people of Eyam in their quarantine meant that the plague was contained within the village.
Some people had a natural resistance to the disease. The village gravedigger didn’t become infected, even though he must have handled hundreds of diseased bodies. The Rev Mompesson also survived, as did Elizabeth Hancock. Mary Hadfied, Alexander’s wife, also survived, although she lost 13 of her relatives.
Without doubt, the bravery of the villagers of Eyam in isolating themselves away from others during the most terrifying months of their lives meant that hundreds, if not thousands, of people were saved in nearby villages and towns.
Reminders and monuments to this inspiring period in Eyam’s history can still be seen throughout the village. Many of the pretty stone cottages have markers denoting their previous residents during the plague years, along with their fates. There are also a number of plague graveyards on the edge of the village, including the poignant Riley Graves.
A display dedicated to the story of the plague in Eyam can also be found in the beautiful church of St Lawrence, which is located in the centre of the village.
Eyam has an interesting Museum dedicated to the history of the village, which is well worth a visit. It tells not just the story of the plague, but also the tales of the villagers – the miners, spinners, weavers, other skilled craftsmen and women, poets and writers – who all contributed to the rebirth of the village after the plague.
Eyam also has a small Visitor Information Centre on the village green in the centre of Eyam which contains displays about the history of the village.