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Visiting Eyam, Derbyshire: The Plague Village Which Self-Quarantined to Stop the Spread of Disease

Travel and history are key interests for Liz and her husband. They enjoy exploring new places and discovering the stories of the past.

PPE in the 1660s. A Plague Doctor in Eyam Museum.

PPE in the 1660s. A Plague Doctor in Eyam Museum.

When History Repeats

When we visited Eyam in July 2019, we had no idea what the following months and years held for us all or how much we would later reflect on our visit. COVID-19 was unheard of. Pandemics were in history books, science fiction films, or distant lands. All that was set to change.

Prior to our visit, I had heard of Eyam but knew little more than the title of this article suggests. We were intrigued to discover the full story.

The Events of 1665–1666 in Eyam

The small village of Eyam and its county, Derbyshire were a long way from London, the scene of the Great Plague, the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague 1665-1666. Nestled in Hope Valley, Eyam is around 161 miles northwest of the UK capital.

In 1665, a tailor from Eyam ordered material from London. George Viccars hung the damp cloth by the fire to dry out. He was the first victim of the plague and died within a few days. Between September and December 1665, 42 villagers died of the bubonic plague.

By Spring 1666 villagers thought of fleeing. But the newly appointed rector, William Mompesson felt strongly that quarantine would halt the spread to the nearby towns of Sheffield and Bakewell. He and his predecessor joined together to persuade the villagers.

Measures were put in place to try to halt the spread of the disease. Eyam was cut off from the outside world. No one left or entered the village. The Earl of Devonshire sent food and supplies from his estate at Chatsworth, as did other charitable neighbors. Villagers collected them from a boundary stone outside the village and from Mompesson's Well.

Services were held in the open air. Families stood apart, social distancing. They buried their own near where they lived.

By August 1666 there were 5 or 6 deaths a day in the hot weather. Cases fell in September and October. By November 1666 the disease had gone.

260 villagers died out of a population of between 350 and 800. The mortality rate was much higher than in London, where around 21% of the population perished.

Eyam

Eyam Museum

Our first stop in Eyam was the village museum. For a small admission charge, we were able to find out about the events of 1665–1666. These were illustrated with life-size models, moving individual accounts, and pictures. As well as documenting the tragic events, the museum uses what we now know about the plague to explain its nature, history, and spread. Eyam museum looks at the remedies that some tried. There is also a display on 17th Century medicine.

We were especially struck by the story of Elizabeth Hancock, who buried her husband and six children in eight days. Another account refers to Emmott Sydall and her betrothed, Rowland Torre, who lived in a neighboring village. They used to meet at a distance and shout across a valley to each other, until one day she did not come, having succumbed to the plague.

The museum also looks at local geology and charts how the village has developed over the years, showing the industries that have influenced its growth. Eyam Museum has been created and is run by local people.

The Bubonic Plague

The plague gets its name from the swelling of the lymph nodes (buboes) at the nearest point to its entry into the body. One to seven days after exposure to the plague bacteria, victims develop flu-like symptoms. Swollen lymph nodes are painful and sometimes break open. Left untreated, death occurs in many cases, usually within 10 days.

Rats or Fleas?

The plague is often associated with rats and there are references to this in Eyam. The museum shop stocks a large number of toy rats. There is a rat prominently displayed on the weathervane above the village museum. Although rats played their part in the spread of the disease, it was fleas that caused the transmission from the rats to humans. Fleas in the cloth ordered by the local tailor are blamed for bringing the plague to Eyam.

Rats in the museum shop at Eyam.

Rats in the museum shop at Eyam.

Eyam Church

Eyam Museum recommends that visitors go to the church. It is a walk of around 6 minutes into the center of the village. It was a worthwhile addition to our visit. Eyam Parish Church has played a significant role in the village for over 1000 years. The buildings date back to Saxon times. Since then, many alterations have been made, but the church has remained a focal point of the local community.

The Plague Register

Copied from the parish register at the time, the Plague Register lists the names of the 260 people who lost their lives in Eyam. It has a prominent position in the South aisle of the church. Each name represents a life tragically cut short by disease.

The Plague Register in Eyam Parish Church.

The Plague Register in Eyam Parish Church.

The Plague Window

Installed in 1985, this is a more recent addition to the church. it is made up of six main sections.

The Eyam cross at the top is symbolic of God's overall power.

Below it is Mompesson's well, where food was left for the villagers.

The adjacent section shows the Riley graves, where Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six children.

The large section on the left depicts George Viccars opening the cloth with a young helper. A 'ring o' roses' refers to the nursery rhyme from the plague and links the opening scene with George on his deathbed a few days later. He was the first victim of the plague in Eyam.

The middle section shows William Mompesson preaching in the open air to his dwindling and socially distanced congregation. The image of the old St. Paul's cathedral and the crowded streets of London alongside Eyam Parish Church indicates the plague link with London.

On the right, Mompesson is seen meeting his predecessor, Thomas Stanley to plan a response to the plague. Mompesson's wife, later a victim herself, is in the background. The image below is of Emmott Sydall secretly meeting her betrothed, Rowland Torre at a distance.

Catherine Mompesson's Tomb

The only grave in the churchyard from the plague is that of the rector's wife, Catherine Mompesson. She was 25 when she died in August 1666 at the height of the outbreak in Eyam. Other victims were buried near where they died.

Catherine Mompesson's tomb.

Catherine Mompesson's tomb.

Other Points of Interest at Eyam Parish Church

Although the 14-month period of the plague dominates the history of Eyam, it is worth noting other interesting sights near the church.

The Saxon Cross

The 8th-Century cross with strong Celtic themes at Eyam is one of the best-preserved in England. Decorated with a mixture of Christian and pagan symbols, it is the oldest feature in the churchyard. It possibly started out as a wayside preaching cross. This cross features at the top of the Plague Window inside the church.

The Saxon Cross, Eyam Parish Church.

The Saxon Cross, Eyam Parish Church.

Sundial

The sundial on the south wall of the church, above a door to the south aisle, is an interesting feature. It was made by Willian Shaw and installed in 1775. When the sun shines, the sundial shows the time in half hours locally as well as in worldwide places.

The sundial on Eyam Parish Church.

The sundial on Eyam Parish Church.

Cricketer's Grave

A more recent addition to the graveyard in Eyam is the grave of local cricketer and umpire, Harry Bagshaw. Having played for Derbyshire and gone on to be an umpire, his sense of humor is evident in the inscription on his cricket-themed gravestone. With the raised umpire's finger pointed heavenward, the inscription reads:

The Cricketer's grave, Eyam.

The Cricketer's grave, Eyam.

Visiting Eyam

Eyam welcomes visitors. There are car parks, both paid and free, near Eyam Museum. The lower car park has toilet facilities. Parking is also available opposite Eyam Hall Courtyard. Visitors are asked to be sensitive to the people living in the village now by using the car parks provided.

In addition to the main sites of the museum and Parish Church, some houses have plaques relating to the fate of occupants during the plague. Please respect the privacy of the current occupants.

On the edge of the village, it is possible to walk to the Riley Graves, where Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six of her children. Mompesson's well, where supplies were left for the villagers, and the Boundary Stone are other sites worth exploring if you have time.

Eyam

Eyam Hall

The Jacobean manor house was built in 1672, six years after the plague. It was a wedding present from Thomas Wright to his son, John. The hall has passed down through the generations and the Wright family now manages it. It is used as a wedding venue.

Eyam Courtyard

The old farm buildings, adjacent to Eyam Hall have been developed. Eyam Courtyard has a cafe and restaurant, Italian street food, and a deli. Shops sell bespoke jewelry, homeware, pre-loved books, and artisan liquor. There is also a yoga studio. The Courtyard is a pleasant area to browse the stores and stop for refreshments.

Final Thoughts

Sadly, the events in Eyam over 350 years ago have become very relevant as the world battles a global pandemic. It has caused me to pause and reflect on what we can learn from Eyam.

Eyam Parish Church was at the heart of the community. Christian faith was at the core of people's lives. Church leaders, past and present, played a key role in guiding Eyam's response to the plague.

The villagers of Eyam could have fled to avoid the plague. Instead, they quarantined themselves and put their lives at risk to protect others in nearby areas.

Joan Plant is a retired churchwarden and a descendant of plague survivor, Margaret Blackwell. Joan has said: "It must have been terrifying, but every single family would have had that strong belief in God, and would not have feared death."

Much has changed in society since 1666. In an increasingly secular society, the role of the church has been diminished and the Christian faith marginalized. Maybe the risks posed by COVID-19 will cause us all to consider death and reassess our spiritual state.

There is hope for the future. The inhabitants of Eyam suffered greatly, but the village overcame the plague and survived to tell its sad but inspirational story.