Years ago I read a novel by an Australian/American writer Geraldine Brooks called Year of Wonders. It was her debut novel and told the story of a village struck down by the Great Plague and whose villagers took the decision to make the ultimate sacrifice and quarantine themselves from the rest of the world in a bid to stop the spread of the disease.
It was a true story and since then I have wanted to visit the village in question Eyam (pronunciation of which I am still not sure but think it might be Ay -(e)m) in the Derbyshire Peak District.
The sad tale of this place is well documented, both from the parish records and from the letters of the Rev William Mompesson and the reminiscences of his son George, who was just a young child at the time.
September 1665 and London is racked by the bubonic plague, transmitted to humans via fleas that live on black rats.
But the small village of Eyam was many miles from there and tucked into the side of an isolated peak in Derbyshire.
Mary Hadfield (formerly Cooper) and her two sons lived in the cottage above and staying with them was a travelling tailor, who perhaps was Mary’s husband’s assistant, a man called George Viccars.
Viccars is reported to have taken delivery of a parcel of cloth from London in which festered the eggs of the fleas carrying the plague. The cloth was damp, he laid it out before the fire to dry hatching the fleas with the deadly disease.
He became ill and died just days later.
Over the next couple of weeks, one of Mary’s sons and several close neighbours fell ill and died within days. The village began to become alarmed. In October a further 23 villagers died, including Mary’s other son and, although there was a reduction in the number of deaths over the winter, by the following April there had been 73 deaths in this small village.
Some people, Like the Rev Mompesson, sent their children away, a few of the wealthier families left the village. But most had nowhere to go and stayed.
There was a brief slowing of deaths in May and the villagers must have held their breaths hoping that the 21 days without a new outbreak needed to be clear of the disease would pass. But it wasn’t to be.
June saw a huge increase in deaths and the rector, together with the former rector Thomas Stanley knew they needed to take action. They gathered the visitors together and agreed three things.
That families would bury their own dead on their own land – the sexton could no longer cope; that the church would be closed and locked – services were help in the open air in a natural amphitheatre opposite the church; and that the village would go into self-imposed quarantine.
The villagers agreed they would cut the village off from the rest of the world to avoid the risk of the plague spreading, and sit it out in the village and see what happened.
They had help from outsiders. The Earl of Devonshire at Chatsworth and villagers in Fulwood and Baslow dropped food and supplies off at designated drop spots – a boundary stone and a well now known as Mompesson’s well. The villagers left money in the water or dropped in vinegar in holes drilled in the boundary stone in return for the supplies.
And in the meantime they waited to see who the plague would strike next and buried their dead where they could.
One of that summer’s victims was Catherine Mompesson, William’s wife, who had refused to leave with her children. Mompesson got special permission and Catherine was the only plague victim buried in the churchyard.
Although near her grave is the headstone of Abel Rowland. It was moved here after it was found in the flagstone floor of one of the cottages.
The memorial says he died in January 1665, which is confusing as the plague didn’t arrive in the village until August /September 1665.
There is a reason for this though. The Gregorian calendar that, among other things, made January the first month of the year, was not introduced in England until 1752. Up until that point, March was the first month of the year with December, January and February being, respectively, the 10th, 11th and 12th month of the year. Therefore in 1665 January came after August, not before.
The plague reached its height in Eyam in the summer of 1666, July and August recording very high death tolls. But by the end of October it had burnt itself out in the village and by November there were no more new cases.
By the end of the plague in Eyam, half the population had died including every member of some families.
Each year the tragic story of Eyam is commemorated with a service in the same natural amphitheatre that services were held in during those plague months and on the last Sunday of the month of August closest to the outbreak of the plague, a spray of red flowers is placed by the wife of the current incumbent at St Lawrence’s church on the tomb of Catherine Mompesson.
There is also a beautiful stained glass window inside the church telling the story of the plague and a village museum (£2.50 entrance as of April 2013) fills in lots more detail.
Eyam makes the most of its darkest days now. Green plaques show the tourists to the village the details of the plague houses, who lived there, who died, who survived.
Although many of the victim’s graves are lost, some remain with tombstones outside the graveyard and these are protected, as is the boundary stone and the well where provisions were dropped.
You can’t take photographs in the church, where there is an illustrated record of the plague deaths and a small display. I suppose it is to encourage you to buy the postcards and guide books on sale.
This is a shame, because I would have bought a book anyway and I would not have been averse to buying a pass to take photos for personal use – perhaps that is something for this type of destination to think about.
There are other things of interest about Eyam, a vicar unable to leave his church for 19 years, a beautiful Saxon cross, an old hall, a sundial and more.
And that’s a lot of stories for any town, especially for a small, isolated village in the Peak District.